Written especially with eastcoastmoderate in mind …
If the Sopranos did a cabinet reshuffle, it would look a lot like this one. Israel’s defence minister is out, departing not with the polite exchange of letters that would be Westminster custom but a fusillade aimed directly at his former boss. He said he could no longer trust Binyamin Netanyahu – and not only because Netanyahu had just offered his job to someone else.
They disagreed on “moral and professional issues”, Moshe Ya’alon said, hinting that their battles were over “manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society” – with Bibi on the wrong side. In Ya’alon’s place is set to come a man routinely described as a thug, even if he did once serve as foreign minister. He’s Avigdor Lieberman, the West Bank settler who’s never quite shaken off his past life as a nightclub bouncer from Moldova. If it weren’t for the accent, you’d cast him alongside Tony and the New Jersey boys in a heartbeat.
Normally a reshuffle in a distant land could be filed under “internal matters” and safely ignored. But this latest move could well affect what was once fondly called the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians (these days there’s no peace and barely any process). It also says something important about the struggle for Israel’s soul.
Make no mistake, Ya’alon is no peacenik. He is a hawk, fully
signed up to Likud intransigence and a favourite of the settlers.
But he is also a former soldier who holds fast to a military ethos
that believes might has to be constrained by the rule of law.
Twice in recent weeks, this insistence on ethics put Ya’alon at odds with the prime minister.
The first clash came when an Israeli army medic shot dead a Palestinian– who had attacked a group of soldiers with a knife – as he lay injured on the ground, posing no threat. Ya’alon led the military brass in denouncing the medic for his lethal indiscipline, for acting out of revenge. Bibi did too – at first. But then he saw that Israeli public opinion was rallying behind the soldier, so he switched sides, even telephoning the killer’s father to demonstrate his sympathy. Ya’alon was appalled.
Then, a fortnight ago, the deputy chief of staff of the Israeli military, Yair Golan, spoke at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event and lamented what he felt were alarming resonances between the “intolerance” and “fear-mongering” visible in contemporary Israel, and the Germany of the 1930s. Golan was widely condemned, including by Netanyahu. Doubtless Ya’alon disagreed with Golan’s sentiments vehemently. But he defended the general’s right to speak out, believing that this too is an essential part of the duty of a soldier in a democracy: to voice the misgivings of his conscience.
With exquisite timing, this issue will be fought out in court on Sunday, when Breaking the Silence– a group that gathers the testimonies of Israeli soldiers, allowing them anonymity to describe the reality of the post-1967 occupation – will face a government demand that it reveal the soldiers’ identities. The group says that this is a clear attempt to shut it down, for without the protection of anonymity few, if any, soldiers will be prepared to talk.
So this is a critical battle in Israel. It’s not between left and right, but rather a division within the right over the rule of law. Tellingly, in his resignation speech – in which he vowed to return to politics and one day compete for the top job – Ya’alon also defended Israel’s supreme court, a frequent punchbag for the ultra-nationalists.