Nothing personal: Kerry-Ya’alon stir indicates policy differences

By Alex Traiman/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli Defense Minister Moshe 'Boogie' Ya'alon gives a statement to the media during a visit to the IDF Central Command on Jan. 7, 2014. The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on Jan. 14 quoted Ya'alon as saying U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's approach to Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations is an obsession" and "messianic," igniting a diplomatic stir. Credit: Flash90. 

Leaked comments Israeli Defense Minister Moshe [Bogie] Ya’alon made about U.S. Secretary State of State John Kerry’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations caused a diplomatic stir last week. Yet Ya’alon’s reported remarks—which characterized Kerry’s approach as an “obsession” and as “messianic”—appear to have less to do with any personal dislike of Kerry and more to do with how Kerry’s pursuit of a two-state solution is at odds with the defense minister’s understanding of Israel’s security needs.

“Bogie is worried about Israeli withdrawal to lines where Israel will be in a difficult strategic and military position to defend itself against future attacks. He believes Kerry does not understand the complexity of the conflict,” Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told JNS.org.

The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth quoted Ya’alon as saying, “Secretary of State John Kerry—who came here very determined, and operates based upon an unfathomable obsession and a messianic feeling—cannot teach me anything about the Palestinians.”

“The only thing that will ‘save’ us is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us alone,” Ya’alon reportedly said. 

The remarks drew strong rebuke from the United States, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—known to have a rocky relationship with the Obama Administration—is being asked to distance himself from the comments.

“The remarks of the defense minister, if accurate, are offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel’s security needs,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, said in a statement.

“To question [Kerry’s] motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally,” she said.

Halevi told JNS.org that Ya’alon’s remarks were intended to be part of a “closed discussion.” 

“It wasn’t intended to be said in public,” Halevi said.

Following a lengthy meeting with Netanyahu, Ya’alon’s defense ministry issued an apology.

“The defense minister had no intention to cause any offense to the secretary, and he apologizes if the secretary was offended by words attributed to the minister,” the statement read.  

“Israel and the United States share a common goal to advance the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians led by Secretary Kerry. We appreciate Secretary Kerry’s many efforts towards that end,” the ministry stated.   

Other Israeli officials, like the U.S., lashed out at Ya’alon’s remarks. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who leads Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, wrote on Facebook, “You can oppose negotiations professionally and responsibly without tongue-lashing and destroying relations with Israel’s top ally.”

But rather than being perceived as a judgment of Kerry’s persona, Ya’alon comments should be understood from a policy perspective, according to Halevi. Ya’alon specifically objected to a security plan pitched by Kerry in December that proposed an Israeli withdrawal framework in exchange for a package of enhanced security equipment and technology. Ya’alon in his comments raised doubts about the effectiveness of such technology “without our forces being present on the ground.”

“And I ask you—how will your technology help us when a Salafist terror cell, or one from the Islamic Jihad, tries to carry out a terror attack against Israeli targets? Who will take care of them? What satellites will take care of the rocket industry that is developing in Shechem (Nablus), and [the rockets that] will be launched at Tel Aviv and the central region?” said Ya’alon.

In Halevi’s estimation, Ya’alon believes that the Palestinians are adhering to a phased plan to try to bring about Israeli destruction. The first phase is to acquire all lands that Israel conquered from Egypt and Jordan during the war of 1967. The next phase will be to flood the rest of Israel with Palestinian refugees.

“The Palestinian Authority is saying that it has no authority to negotiate on behalf of refugees, claiming that the right of return this is the personal right of refugees,” Halevi told JNS.org 

A law passed in 2008 by the Palestinian Authority states, “The right of return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes and their property and their receipt of compensation for their suffering is a basic, holy right and is not subject to buying and selling, and is not subject to personal judgment [to make major changes], interpretation, or referendum.” 

The law goes on to state that anyone who defies it “will be considered as one who has committed serious criminal treason, and will be subject to every criminal and civil punishment that this crime deserves.”

According to Halevi, if the Palestinian refugee issue is not resolved, then the “gates of the conflict remain open.” In other words, signing a negotiated land agreement will not mean that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and an agreement will not necessarily end all claims that the Palestinians have against Israel. 

If Kerry pushes Israel into such moves, Halevi said “it will not promote peace, because Palestinians are not willing to make concessions on any of their issues, and Israel will pay a very high price, and getting in return literally nothing.”

“Israeli politicians like Netanyahu understand exactly that the Palestinians don’t want to reach a final status agreement. Yet, some people see the alarming signs and ignore them,” he added.

A recent public opinion poll commissioned by Israel Hayom and conducted by the New Wave Research Institute revealed that more than half of Israelis, 53.5 percent, do not trust Kerry to act as an impartial mediator, with less than 20 percent believing that Kerry is unbiased. The poll indicates that Israeli public opinion on Kerry may not be too far from Ya’alon’s assessment of the secretary of state.

“We have given enough and received nothing,” Ya’alon said. “Let us say to our American friends, ‘Enough is enough.’” 

Ya’alon’s comments on Kerry were reported on the same day as disparaging remarks about Netanyahu in former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s memoir. 

“I was offended by his glibness and his criticism of U.S. policy—not to mention his arrogance and outlandish ambition—and I told national security adviser Brent Scowcroft that Bibi ought not be allowed back on White House grounds,” Gates writes in “Memoirs of a Secretary at War.

Gates’ comments were not met with any response from Israeli officials.

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Posted on January 15, 2014 and filed under Israel, News.