Friday, August 21, 2009

Maybe there are just too many generals in Israeli politics

Ya'alon's misstep


Here's a prediction: When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu travels to London and Berlin next week, Vice-Premier Moshe Ya'alon won't be standing in for him as acting premier. That's because Ya'alon has gone off the reservation.

As guest of honor earlier this week at a meeting of the Jewish Leadership Movement, a stridently right-wing Likud caucus led by Moshe Feiglin, Ya'alon said the wrong things, in the wrong way, in the wrong place.

In arguing that Jews have a right to live anywhere in Judea and Samaria, Ya'alon was articulating a fairly conventional Israeli position. Yet this government, in pursuing an accommodation with the Palestinian Arabs, has agreed that Israel will not exercise Jewish rights everywhere between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.

In arguing that even unauthorized outposts "are completely legal," Ya'alon was staking out a position at odds with his own government.

The tone of what Ya'alon said was also off-putting. This newspaper has been critical of Peace Now for its wholesale marginalization of the entire settlement enterprise. We've criticized the organization too for taking money from foreign powers and foundations intent on swaying Israeli public opinion and government policies. Yet we have never questioned the motives of grassroots Israelis who earnestly identify with Peace Now. And we think Ya'alon's intolerant characterization of the organization as an elitist "virus" further demeans the level of political discourse in this country.

Ya'alon's venue was also peculiar. Netanyahu opposes any role for Feiglin within the party. The premier's ongoing campaign to block Feiglin, who nowadays plays by the rules of the political game, from lawfully dissenting within the Likud strikes us as wrongheaded. But in aligning himself so publicly with Netanyahu's nemesis, Ya'alon has demonstrated a remarkable lack of loyalty to the man who so recently ushered him into politics.

THE YA'ALON affair exposes yet again why the Israeli political system is dysfunctional. There is something awfully wrong when a number two feels no compunction about turning against his chief after only five months in office.

The controversy also reminds us that generals tend to find the give-and-take of politics exasperating. Politics is the art of the possible; it demands compromise and endless bargaining over who gets what, when and how. The military, in contrast, is a hierarchical organization. Generals give orders; subordinates obey.

Just as Ya'alon is proving a divisive force in the Likud - irritated, perhaps, that he has to compete with others in influencing the premier - Shaul Mofaz is champing at the bit as Tzipi Livni's number two in Kadima. Ehud Barak, meanwhile, has practically eviscerated the Labor Party to maintain his grip on power.

Ya'alon presents himself as a man above the fray who speaks truth to power. His supporters believe that Ariel Sharon did not extend the then chief of staff's term by the customary year because Ya'alon opposed the Gaza disengagement. Opinions differ on whether this was really so.

In any event, Ya'alon could learn something from his cabinet colleague Bennie Begin about honorable behavior at the apex of government.

THE PRIME Minister's Office announced that "Minister Ya'alon's statements are unacceptable to the prime minister, both in substance and in style, and do not represent the government's position."

Speaking at Bar-Ilan University in June, the premier outlined the peace policies of this government. He noted that "in the heart of our Jewish homeland [there] now lives a large population of Palestinians. We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives." He offered to negotiate the creation of a demilitarized state for the Palestinians, insisting that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state and renounce the "right of return" to Israel proper for refugees and their descendants. A pullback to the 1949 Armistice Lines is out of the question.

Ya'alon heard that speech - some reports suggested he participated in drafting it - and the next day told Army Radio that he could live with a Palestinian state under the conditions defined by Netanyahu.
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Shabbat shalom

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