Opinion | Opinion

Israel’s Defense Minister Should Guard his Words

Scarcely a week goes by, it seems, without Israel’s Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon getting his name into the headlines for provocative statements about the United States and its leaders.

First, he called US Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic” for his efforts to mediate a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. No sooner had he half-heartedly apologized for that faux pas than Ya’alon was in hot water again, this time for saying that the United States was showing weakness on issues including Iran, China and Ukraine, forcing Israel to conclude it may need to act alone to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

“Look what’s happening in Ukraine, where the United States is demonstrating weakness, unfortunately,” Ya’alon said. “If you sit and wait at home, the terrorism will come again. Even if you hunker down, it will come. This is a war of civilizations. If your image is feebleness, it doesn’t pay in the world. I hope the United States comes to its senses. If it doesn’t, it will challenge the world order, and the United States is the one that will suffer.”

That kind of language is simply unacceptable, especially in view of the long commitment the United States has made to Israel’s security and technological edge over the decades. Unfortunately, it reflects a growing tendency among some Israeli politicians, especially those ideologically opposed to a two-state solution with the Palestinians, to criticize US leaders who do not share their views. Of course, if US leaders intervened Israeli domestic affairs in a similar way, they would be roundly condemned by these same politicians.

The United States is invested in Israel’s security today under President Barack Obama as never before. Military cooperation between the two nations is at an unprecedented level. The Obama administration was right to be offended by Ya’alon’s outrageous remarks– as should be all Americans who have worked to nurture the US-Israeli relationship through Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

Ya’alon is the 16th man to hold the post of Israeli Minister of Defense, which is universally acknowledged to be the second only to the prime minister in importance. Indeed six of the previous incumbents served simultaneously as prime minister while holding the defense portfolio.

Defense Ministers have brought both glory and shame to Israel because of the decisions they took – or did not take. Moshe Dayan was appointed to the job one day before the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967 and took some of the credit for that military triumph – but he also left Israel unprepared for the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Later, he played a key role in negotiating the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 together with another Defense Minister, Ezer Weizman.

Ariel Sharon took the post in 1981 and immediately began plotting the invasion of Lebanon which took place the following year. He was forced to resign for failing to prevent a massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Christian militias in Beirut while the city was under Israeli occupation.

On the face of it, Ya’alon has all the prerequisites to be a successful minister of defense. He had a distinguished military career which included stints as commander of an elite commando unit, head of military intelligence and Chief of Staff. His weakness appears to be his inability to separate his job as minister in charge of Israel’s security with his ideology as a supporter of the settlement movement and opponent of territorial compromise.

Ya’alon of course has the full right to hold whichever opinions he likes and to advance them in the hurly-burly of Israeli democracy. However, in his official capacity, he must act as the representative of all Israelis and of the State of Israel.

Alan Elsner is Vice President for Communications at J Street.