No one wants to be in Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s shoes. The man who sits at the top of Israel’s defense pyramid, approves all operational plans and has intimate knowledge of all the threats on all the fronts also has to deal with demands for cuts in the defense budget and with painful encounters with families of soldiers who were killed or wounded in battle. Less than two months after the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s latest confrontation in Gaza, Ya’alon takes time for his first in-depth post-war media interview.
“I am morally at peace with the decisions we have made,” the defense minister says as he explains the moral dilemmas he faced during the fighting. The objective was to target terrorists, but in reality many civilians — Palestinians who are not fighters — were hurt. “When I examine whether force needs to be used, I put myself to three tests: the first test is whether I would be able to look at myself in the mirror after the bombing or the operation that I would have approved. Then, I examine the situation from a legal perspective, in terms of our law as well as international law. If everyone were to participate in the discussions surrounding the approval of an operation, they would see for themselves that we deal with very complex dilemmas, like when to shoot, like the principle of ‘thou shalt not kill,’ or the sanctity of life, versus the notion that ‘if someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.’ And yes, I am at peace with the decisions we made during the course of Operation Protective Edge.
“We examine the proportionality and the morality and the sanctity of life on all sides, but the enemy does not adhere to international law or honor the morality of the value of human life, even toward their own fighters and civilians, who are sent to the front lines. The dilemmas are very difficult. Then the U.N. comes along and wants to investigate us. There is obvious hypocrisy here; they should investigate Hamas, but it is easier to criticize and attack us. There is a combination of hypocrisy, anti-Semitism and maybe other things.”
Q: Is Hamas military wing commander Mohammed Deif alive or dead?
“He is either alive or dead.”
Q: Was bombing the house Deif was believed to have been in, knowing his wife and daughter were there, the right decision?
“That is exactly the kind of dilemma that I described asking myself whether I would be able to look myself in the mirror after approving such an operation. That decision was the right one.”
Q: During Operation Protective Edge, the prime minister, you and the IDF chief of staff worked together as a trio at the top. You decided not to topple Hamas’ rule in Gaza. Can you explain why?
“We did not arrive at Operation Protective Edge by surprise. The cabinet has been debating this issue since the current government was first established. There were preliminary meetings on the Gaza Strip and other fronts, in case we are attacked from Lebanon and from Syria and from even further places. That is why we held in-depth discussions. Many options were raised, among them operational plans that involved entering Gaza, conquering it and cleansing the territory. After a cost-benefit analysis we concluded that it was not the right move right now to attempt such an operation. We realized that there is no one that could take our place once we conquer and cleanse: Not [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas, not the Egyptians, not the Arab League and not the U.N. That means that if we went in there, we would get stuck there.”
Q: Why not conquer, cleanse, and get out?
“What then? What good would that do? People often say ‘you carried out Operation Defensive Shield in Judea and Samaria in the early 2000s, why not do another defensive shield in Gaza?’ I want to remind you that in Defensive Shield, it took us nearly three years to rid Judea and Samaria of all its terror infrastructure. There were only a few hundred terrorists there. In Gaza there are tens of thousands. In the famous battle in Jenin we lost 23 soldiers. In Gaza, all of Jenin is like one street in Jabaliya. In Gaza there are the Nuseirat, Shvura, Shati and Bureij refugee camps and there are plenty more. The situation there is far more complicated. There are residential areas and high-rises. One high-rise takes an entire battalion to cleanse, and it would be like they never went in. There is also an underground city of tunnels. Again, the army knows how to do these things, but it is all a question of cost and benefit.
“During Defensive Shield in Judea and Samaria, they didn’t have rocket-propelled grenade launchers. We rode in reinforced jeeps. In Gaza there are RPGs, there are Kornet missiles and the threat is far greater. When we go in there, we use Merkava Mark IV tanks with Trophy active protection systems and Namer armored personnel carriers and we invest our best resources. Defensive Shield took three years to complete, here it would take much longer, and during that time there would be nothing to prevent Hamas from firing a rocket here and there at Israel; from using snipers against our units; from exacting a human toll. It wouldn’t end with a ten-day takeover. It would be several years of cleansing. I am not certain that this government could survive such a situation. The people would ask: ‘Wait, what are we looking for there? Why did we go in and then out? If the rocket fire didn’t stop, why did we go in?’ Therefore, in this case, it is probably best to heed the saying ‘think before you act.'”
They chose rockets over strawberries
The defense minister doesn’t name any names, but he levels veiled criticism at Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and others who second-guessed his decisions during the operation.
“Unfortunately, by way of inappropriate conduct, things leaked from the cabinet. There was fighting and there were ministers who worked on their political careers with slogans and remarks in favor of toppling Hamas, while claiming that it was others who were against. That led to unacceptable behavior that we had no choice but to address during the operation, and it took us to bad places in the context of the cabinet’s wartime conduct.”
Q: Many spoke of the sour taste left by the way this operation was concluded. Perhaps they understood that Gaza cannot be defeated, and Israel can’t achieve a proper victory, precisely because of the cost you described.
“First of all, the question is what would constitute a victory? People long for the victory of the Six-Day War. In military terms, that was certainly a spectacular victory: the annihilation of our Arab neighbors’ armies. But how long after that war did the War of Attrition begin? Not very long at all. Therefore, the question of how to define a victory is interesting, and requires close examination. I assert that victory is bringing the other side to agree to a cease-fire on your terms. That is how we looked at the equation before the operation and after it. And indeed, we brought Hamas to agree to a cease-fire in a way that ran contrary to their wishes. That is undoubtedly an achievement. There is victory on the ground because of the heavy price that the Gaza Strip had to pay. I expect that they will think twice before escalating violence again in the future. After Operation Pillar of Defense, our power of deterrence lasted a year and a half, and that was over eight days of fighting. They paid a price then, but now the price was much heavier. Time will tell what kind of deterrence this operation managed to achieve.”
Q: What is the diplomatic solution for Gaza?
“We withdrew from Gaza. The Gazans chose Hamas, which in turn chose to manufacture rockets instead of exporting strawberries, and for that they are paying a price. It is probably not a permanent and stable solution, but it is important to talk about ‘crisis management’ in regard to Gaza as well as Judea and Samaria in such a way that will serve our interests. According to the Iron Wall doctrine, they will realize that we are here to stay. Ever since the clashes began in 1936, Dr. Moshe Beilinson, who served as the deputy editor of the [now defunct] Davar newspaper, was asked ‘when will it end?’ and he would reply ‘when the last of our enemies understand that we are here forever.’ There are no shortcuts. Our efforts to create shortcuts over the last two decades — from Oslo until present day — have all failed. We know how to live with it. It is certainly not necessary to control them. We can give them political autonomy like they have now.”
Q: Is Abbas still a partner for peace?
“Abbas has never said that he recognizes us as the nation state of the Jewish people. He also never said that if a compromise is reached, even one that adheres to his vision of 1967 borders, it would end the conflict and the [Palestinian] demands. He never said that he has given up on demanding refugee rights. So where can we go with him? He is a partner for discussion; a partner for managing the conflict. I am not looking for a solution, I am looking for a way to manage the conflict and the maintain relations in a way that works for our interests. We need to free ourselves of the notion that everything boils down to only one option called a [Palestinian] state. As far as I am concerned let them call it the Palestinian Empire. I don’t care. It is an autonomy if it is ultimately a demilitarized territory. That is not a status quo, it is the establishment of a modus vivendi that is tolerable and serves our interests.”
Q: Are you rejecting the idea of a two-state solution?
“Call it whatever you want. The political separation has already happened, and it is a good thing that it has. We are not controlling the lives of the residents of Gaza or Judea and Samaria. This separation is important. I would encourage and reinforce governability, the economy and the residents’ ability to live in dignity and economic comfort. But to derive something so black and white from that? State or no state? Let’s put the terminology aside.”
Q: Will they or won’t they have the territorial contiguity that signifies a state?
“First of all, it would be possible to link Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah, if that is the problem. The question is what are their long-term aspirations. If we seek peace and security — to live our lives in peace and quiet — that is one thing. The other side doesn’t think that 1967 borders will be the end of the story, and they never said that it would be the end of the story. To them it is merely a stage; it is not about establishing a state, but rather destroying the Jewish state and negating its existence. There is a lack of symmetry here that is not in our favor, so we need to learn how to manage this conflict without delusions.”
Interests outweigh disputes
Ya’alon sparked a media storm when he was quoted as describing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as “obsessive and messianic.” But he rejects the allegations that he disrespects Israel’s closest ally. “Did you hear me say it? Someone said that I said it,” he says. “Our relationship with the U.S. is very important. First and foremost it is important to us, and I hope it is important to the U.S. too. The defense relationship between us is excellent. My personal relationship with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is also excellent, as is the relationship between the Defense Ministry and the Pentagon and between the IDF and the U.S. military. That doesn’t mean that there are no disputes, even between friends. But the disputes don’t have to manifest themselves in this or that manner.
“Yes, we disagree sometimes. We disagree on how to handle the Iranian nuclear program; on what to discuss with the Iranians: only terrorism and missiles or centrifuges too? There have been debates on how to confront Egypt with [former President Hosni] Mubarak and with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Americans’ relations with [current Egyptian President] Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. There were disagreements and we saw things in this way or in a different way. Legitimate arguments behind closed doors. Obviously there were disagreements on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, regarding the level of its centrality in the context of the Middle East, whether it is the source of the regional instability or whether it was caused by something else. I think today that there is not a single Arab leader, for example, who would argue that the Palestinian issue it at the crux of all the problems in the Middle East. What they are focused on now is the Iranian threat, the Islamic State group and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We have a lot of shared interests with the U.S. and that outweighs the disputes. Certainly there are shared values on which the two countries are founded. The disputes stem from differences in attitudes and worldviews. Their perspective from there is different than our perspective from here. Disputes are allowed. We have disputes amongst ourselves too — in the analysis of the situation, in the diagnosis and the prognosis.”
Q: You never felt compelled to apologize to Kerry?
“I said what needed to be said. Much of what Kerry heard directly from me was not said in the spirit of the things that were quoted by that newspaper. Here in Israel no one ever hears me saying such things about people, not at the Knesset and not in interviews and not anywhere else. The way the things came out was unacceptable.
“The U.S. is the number one superpower in the world. Even when describing a multipolar world and the rise of other superpowers and the possible decline of the U.S.’s power, it is still the number one superpower. The U.S. has immense power to influence in all departments. It is leading two coalitions against Islamic State — in Iraq and in Syria, and it is negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue and it is a leader in international bodies and in the U.N. There is also the U.S. Congress that has its own power. The American Congress led the sanctions effort against Iran, brought [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei to the realization that in order to survive he had to enter negotiations. Above all, there are the American people, with whom we share our values.”
Q: One of the biggest disagreements with the U.S. is over construction beyond the Green Line. There are settler leaders who accuse you of freezing construction, while others accuse you of recklessly authorizing construction.
“There is no construction freeze. Announcements of planning processes have been delayed due to sensitivity concerns. In that regard, it is important to act wisely and not to bring upon ourselves tough international decisions that we may later regret. We don’t want to put ourselves in these corners.”
The defense minister stresses that Israel is prepared for any scenario on any front. As for the northern front, he says that “as far as we can see, Hezbollah is not looking to escalate the conflict at this time. The skirmishes in Har Dov were localized, with Hezbollah seeing fit to respond to actions they attributed to us. Hezbollah has 100,000 rockets and missiles, mainly from Iran and Syria. This organization is dependent on Iran, that is the problem.
“We are preparing for the possibility of escalation, from any direction, not just Lebanon. Even before Operation Protective Edge, but also now after it, anyone who tries to threaten us with rockets already understands that we will exact a very dear price. In the Dahiyeh in Beirut [during the 2006 Second Lebanon War] we destroyed 70 buildings, and in Gaza some people were saying that 7,000 buildings were completely destroyed. The conclusion is clear: At the end, they pay a heavy price for operating against us. If Hezbollah attack they will pay a heavy price; Lebanon will pay a heavy price. Offense is still the best defense. However, in terms of rocket threat, Israel Is the safest place in the world thanks to its multilayer defense systems ranging from Iron Dome to the Arrow system.”
Ya’alon promises that the extremist Islamic State organization, which is currently troubling the entire world, does not pose a threat to Israel.
“Right now, the Islamic State group is far away from us. It can only pose a threat to us if it conquers Syria from the west and in our direction. That is not the case today.”
Over the last few weeks, the question of whether to revoke Turkey’s NATO membership has come up. Ya’alon prefers not to address this question directly, but says that “if there is a country that is a member of the U.N. and NATO and simultaneously supports Hamas — an unequivocal terrorist organization that operates against the citizens of the State of Israel — it should be called to order.”
Q: Relations with Egypt are good, but like other moderate Arab countries, they are not being made public.
“Yes, unfortunately the State of Israel is still seen as out of place in the region, so it is difficult to achieve normalization. I assert that any relationship requires first and foremost a set of interests. When you ask an average Israeli about peace, he will automatically ask three questions: What territory would we have to give up for peace — a question that I reject; When will we eat hummus in Ramallah, Damascus, Beirut, etc. I wish but I will make do with the hummus we have here; and the most problematic question of the three, if there is peace, where are the lawyers who will formulate the detailed agreement that we will sign in a ceremony in Oslo or at the White House? I say that an agreement without interests is not worth the paper it is written on. Interests don’t require ceremonies or agreements.
“We have peace with Jordan and with Egypt, and it has gotten stronger in recent years as a result of interests. You can see clearly, as the prime minister said in his address to the U.N. General Assembly, that the diplomatic horizon is not in Ramallah but in other Arab capitals. Without ceremonies, without agreements, and on the basis of shared interests. If we and the Sunni states share enemies like Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Shiite axis, global jihad groups and al-Qaida — all the better.”