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Yaalon’s military pedigree largely mirrors that of outgoing defence minister Ehud Barak. Before reaching the high command, they both headed Israel’s premier special forces regiment, in which Netanyahu served as a junior officer, and thus enjoy decades-old rapports with him. There the similarities end.
Barak, a centrist one-time premier, was crafty in statecraft and conferred monthly in Washington, though his maverick views were seldom welcomed within Netanyahu’s nationalist coalition.
Yaalon, said Asa-El, “is less impulsive, more low-key, more calculated and generally more modest” than Barak.
He can also be impolitic. That may make it harder for Yaalon to explain Israel’s West Bank settlements, overseen by the Defence Ministry, to foreign leaders who believe they undermine any prospect for revived peace talks with the Palestinians.
Whereas Barak consistently voiced trust in U.S. President Barack Obama, Yaalon last year questioned his resolve to curb Iran. After the Democrat’s reelection to the White House in November, however, Yaalon took a different tack, noting with approval U.S. military mobilisation in the Gulf.
Dennis Ross, a former Obama adviser on the Middle East, said that while Yaalon will get American respect for his experience in uniform, Barak’s legacy will be difficult to live up to.
“No successor (to Barak) will come in with that same kind of stature” in the Obama administration’s eyes, Ross told Reuters.
Known by his childhood nickname “Bogie”, Yaalon led Israeli commandos in the 1988 assassination in Tunis of PLO strongman Abu Jihad. As general he favored tough tactics against Palestinians revolting in the West Bank and Gaza - putting him in the sights of war-crimes suits by their supporters abroad.
He now faces new domestic fights in the form of defence budget cuts and a long-delayed review of the exemptions enjoyed by many ultra-Orthodox Jews from compulsory national service.