Interview with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon: No imminent threat from the North
Yoav Zitun, Moran Azula/Ynetnew /Published: 10.15.14,/ Israel News
In interview with Ynet, defense minister says Hezbollah was not interested in escalation against Israel, there was no Islamic State presence on the Golan border and Hamas will eventually fall.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon does not foresee an imminent threat from the North. Hezbollah, he says, is not interested in escalation against Israel, there is no Islamic State presence on the Golan border and Syria’s chemical weapons are almost completely gone. In an interview with Ynet, the defense minister talks about Operation Protective Edge, lashes out at rogue cabinet ministers and predicts Hamas’ eventual fall.
Is this the end of the seven years of calm on the northern border, has the Israeli deterrence been eroded, and is Israel wary of attacking advanced weapons being transferred to Hezbollah?
“I don’t foresee Hezbollah pushing for an escalation. It chose Mount Dov (an incident in which two soldiers were lightly wounded from an explosive device – YZ, MA), which is far from civilian population, as a site for recent attacks for a good reason. The red lines haven’t changed, and the deterrence remains.”
Before “Protective Edge” you said Hamas was not interested in escalation, and we still found ourselves fighting it.
“There’s a possibility of ‘miscalculization’ in the north as well, and we’re ready for that.”
Ya’alon notes that there were hardly any chemical weapons left in Syria, and that there is no Islamic State presence on the Golan border. He says the Syrian-Israeli border was controlled by militias affiliated to the Free Syrian Army, while the Nusra Front (considered al-Qaeda’s “moderate sect”) controls the border. The extremists among the al-Nusra ranks, he says, left at the beginning of the year to form the Islamic State.
“We’re trying to share our knowledge and experience because we live close by,” Ya’alon says of the Islamic State. “We have bilateral intelligence ties with several of the countries in the coalitions – the Western coalition in Iraq and the Arab coalition in Syria – both led by the US. So it’s only natural that any intelligence we have that could help them is being shared with them.”
Netanyahu said at the UN that “Hamas is ISIS,” but Israel is negotiating with Hamas in Cairo, and decided not to overthrow it.
“When facing challenges, you examine cost versus benefit in level-headed discussions, like the ones the cabinet held during the operation. What we want to do on the long term will happen. Hamas will fall. A movement based on death and destruction will not survive. Unlike the Second Lebanon War, we went on this campaign with a clearly defined target. Since the foundation of the state, we’ve been living from one round of fighting to the next, and this last operation will ensure a long period of calm.”
Did Army Intelligence or the Shin Bet provide the cabinet with intelligence about a possible war in the summer?
“Neither the prime minister nor I received a warning, but we have to be properly prepared. We were viewing the Strip as unstable and if thought that if disaster was to be poured out, it’ll be from the south. From the outset, Hamas was not interested in a round of fighting.”
Throughout the Gaza operation, commanders in the IDF said Hamas fighters were fleeing the Israeli soldiers, but it was Chief of Staff Benny Gantz who dropped a bombshell when he called the terrorists who tried to infiltrate Israel through the sea and plant explosives on tanks “brave.”
Ya’alon doesn’t try distancing himself from Gantz’s statement, and provides an explanation of his own: “Those prepared to go into battle and lose their lives – that’s bravery. You need bravery even in order to commit suicide.”
‘I’m not delaying settlement projects’
Ya’alon believes Israel must not agree to an ultimatum the Palestinians want to set for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank within three years.
“Those who live here know exactly where we’re living. Talking about pulling out of Judea and Samaria in three years, does that sound like a wise thing to do in light of what we’ve experienced since 1994?”
He also addresses claims from the Housing Ministry that he was delaying discussions on settlement construction projects, “From my point of view, it’s right to continue building and continue approving building plans. We are building. Construction hasn’t been frozen,” he says.
“Sometimes when we carry the burden too long, we lose more than we gain. So when we delay approval of construction plans in order to avoid getting slammed with criticism from the world, it’s the prime minister maneuvering responsibly, and I’m a part of that. It’s not delayed by me, I have a pile of approved projects. We delay tenders meant to be released but it doesn’t delay construction of approved projects,” he explains.
He rejects American criticism against the construction in the settlements. “I know it, and we don’t have to agree with it. Just like the Arabs have a right to live anywhere – in Nablus and Jaffa and buy an apartment in the French Hill neighborhood – so can Jews buy a house in Silwan and anywhere else in the land of Israel. What is this? Judenrein?”
Despite that, the defense minister says there is an excellent relationship and cooperation between the defense establishment and the Pentagon, “but there are some topics we disagree on, like what to do about the Iranian nuclear threat, what exactly to put on the negotiating table and what’s the right thing to do facing our neighboring regimes.”
Inadvertently aiding Hamas
Twice during the interview Ya’alon raises his voice to express his fury. The normally reserved minister, who disappeared and was almost forgotten by the media during Operation Protective Edge, is angry when broaching the topic of the defense budget and his fellow cabinet member Naftali Bennett.
Those who thought Ya’alon and Bennett have patched things up since the Rontzki Affair (former Chief Military Rabbi provided Bennett with sensitive information during the operation), can now see how the top echelons of the government, even in its most right-wing section, are plagued with strife.
“I didn’t deal with Rabbi Rontzki, the army dealt with him because of his improper conduct,” Ya’alon says. “During the operation, the prime minister and I felt there was improper conduct in the cabinet, part of it of ministers going to the media and throwing statements of ‘we will kill them’ and ‘we will overthrow them,’ while voting otherwise in the cabinet.”
Ya’alon describes the Bennett and Rontzki Affair as “a grave phenomenon – a government minister calling his friend on the field, mostly reservists, receiving information and not going through the proper channels. Every minister who wants to visit an army unit knows they must turn to the defense minister for authorization. Some of the ministers did that, and those who didn’t, used the information they received in an improper manner – both in the cabinet room and out to the press and after the operation – in order to present the Army Command and the Chief of Staff as a lazy horse while the ranks below are galloping horses. Galloping horses are a good thing but the chief of staff, not to mention the ministers, have to have a broader perspective with both international and regional considerations. That infuriated me. It still does. I hope these ministers learn the lesson.”
Ya’alon’s onslaught doesn’t end there, and he accuses cabinet ministers of practically aiding Hamas.
“The very fact there were fractions within the government that came out undoubtedly gave the Hamas leadership the feeling that we’re about to break. I’ve been in cabinets for 20 years. You can raise a different opinion, the previous cabinet did not have a unified stance either, but it shouldn’t come out. When it comes out to the press the other side can say, ‘look, they’re about to break. Why should we accept a ceasefire? Let’s carry on for a while longer.'”
It was only a month and a half ago that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stood in front of the media and fought a PR campaign over the government’s policy during Operation Protective Edge. Ya’alon, considered one of Likud’s most right-wing politicians, found himself fighting off claims from his faction members on the government’s weak policy against Hamas.
But Ya’alon received support from Prime Minister Netanyahu in the fight for the defense budget. After reaching agreements with the Treasury, some claimed there was already a quiet agreement between the prime minister and defense minister on next year’s additions to the defense budget, which Lapid and Netanyahu have already agreed would amount to NIS 57 billion, on top of covering the expenses of Operation Protective Edge.
“The Treasury added more clauses that are not even in the defense budget, national projects like the IDF’s planned move south, the privatization of IMI and the purchase of ships to secure gas-drilling. I did not demand the cutbacks to all government ministries,” he says.
Ya’alon considers the budget fights political, and he is unimpressed by threats from coalition partners Yesh Atid and Hatnua to quit the government should a diplomatic process not resume.
According to Ya’alon “this is an unnatural coalition, and we’ve already seen bonds between ‘brothers’ who were broken, and new ‘brothers’ came to be. I don’t suppose the diplomatic issue will break the coalition, unless someone uses it as an excuse.”