Moshe Yaalon, the recently deposed Israeli defense minister, declared his candidacy for prime minister today in a surprise announcement in an address to the annual Herzliya Conference, Israel’s prestigious annual security seminar.
“The state of Israel and citizens of Israel see a leadership today that’s ceased to function,” Yaalon told a stunned audience that repeatedly interrupted him with applause. “We see a leadership that hides behind gatekeepers and worries about the survival of the regime rather than the welfare of the nation. A leadership that practices a tactic of ‘scare and rule,’ that divides us rather than uniting us, that divides Jews from Arabs and left from right, that attacks the Supreme Court and undermines the rule of law.”
Yaalon is a former career soldier who served as chief of Central Command in charge of the West Bank, as chief of military intelligence during the Second Intifada, and as chief of staff of the Israeli military.
A kibbutz member and onetime Labor Party supporter, he moved to the right as intelligence chief when he became convinced that the Palestinian leadership still aspired to destroy Israel. His service as chief of staff was cut short in 2005 when he openly opposed then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from Gaza.
Defense minister since 2013, he began clashing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent months. Tensions began after the military charged a soldier with manslaughter for shooting and killing a terrorist who was lying wounded and immobilized at the time. Yaalon defended the army’s decision to arrest the soldier over bitter protests from politicians on the right. Netanyahu, after initially defending the military, reversed himself days later and expressed sympathy for the soldier.
Tensions increased after the deputy chief of staff, Yair Golan, delivered a speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day comparing trends in current-day Israeli society to “processes” that took place in Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover. Again Yaalon defended the general, saying it was his duty to express his views.
Not long afterward, Netanyahu announced that he was bringing right-wing firebrand Avigdor Lieberman into his ruling coalition as defense minister, unseating Yaalon.
Yaalon opened his address in Herzliya by recalling his experience as a young soldier during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. The coordinated surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria threatened Israel’s existence, he said, but Israel’s ability to turn the tide and survive convinced its enemies that “they can’t destroy Israel by conventional warfare.” Some turned to peace, while others turned to various forms of terrorism or diplomatic opposition.
Although Israel currently faces formidable enemies that can do serious damage, including the Hamas and Hezbollah organizations on its borders, Iran and the jihadist movements operating in Syria and Sinai, “Israel can meet those threats.”
From his knowledge as a former intelligence chief, top military commander and until recently defense minister, he said, “I can say that at this moment and for the foreseeable future there is no existential threat to the state of Israel. So Israel’s leadership should stop frightening the population as though we face an existential threat. It’s a cynical attempt to exploit the citizenry.”
“This doesn’t mean that we should rest on our laurels,” he continued. “We still face threats. We need a strong, high quality military.” However, he said, Israel also needs confidence and strong relationships in the international community, especially with the United States.
“If there’s anything that keeps me awake at night,” Yaalon said, “it’s the divisions in Israeli society, the undermining of our values, the attacks on our soldiers. Likud members that I meet with tell me there’s a longing for change.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).