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Israeli defense minister reflects on Gaza, Abbas, and U.S.-Israel relations

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon (right) speak with members of the K-9 Special Forces Unit at Camp Adam in Israel on April 23, 2013. Credit: Secretary of Defense.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon (right) speak with members of the K-9 Special Forces Unit at Camp Adam in Israel on April 23, 2013. Credit: Secretary of Defense.

Less than two months after the conclusion of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon says he is “morally at peace” with the Jewish state’s decisions during the 50-day summer war with Hamas.

“When I examine whether force needs to be used, I [give] myself three tests,” he says. “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.”

In the following interview with Israel Hayom, Ya’alon gives his thoughts on the Gaza war, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, U.S.-Israel relations, and the Arab world.

During the Gaza operation, was bombing the house Hamas commander Mohammed 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.”

Israel decided not to topple Hamas’s 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 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.”

Many Israelis have described a sour taste left in their mouths by the way the Gaza operation ended. Perhaps they feel that Hamas cannot be defeated?

“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.”

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.”

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.”

You sparked a media firestorm when you were quoted as describing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as “obsessive and messianic.” Did you disrespect Israel’s closest ally?

“Did you hear me say it? Someone said that I said it. 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.

“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-Sisi. 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.

“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.”

What’s your assessment of the security situation on Israel’s northern front?

“As far as we can see, Hezbollah is not looking to escalate the conflict at this time. The [recent] 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 attacks, they will pay a heavy price. Lebanon will pay a heavy price. Offense is still the best defense.”

Does Islamic State 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.”

Israeli relations with Egypt are improving, but like Israel’s interactions with other moderate Arab countries, they’re not being made public. Why?

“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.

“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-Qaeda, all the better.”

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