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It is a well-known fact that a candidate running for prime minister in Israel stands a better chance of winning if he is a decorated general with a distinguished military career. Moshe Yaalon, who resigned as minister of defence on 20 May 2016, is such a man. But will that be enough to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu, the current leader, in the next elections?
Yaalon, who like Netanyahu is from the ruling Likud party, stepped down after three years in the post, citing a “lack of faith” in the prime minister. “Extremist and dangerous elements have overrun Israel as well as the Likud party, shaking up the national home and threatening harm to those in it,” he said in a press conference at the Defence Ministry.
He was replaced by hardliner Avigdor Lieberman, a member of the Yisrael Beitenu party. The appointment widened the coalition government’s majority in the 120-seat Knesset from 61 to 67. The move was seen by some as proof of Netanyahu’s political brilliance, but it enraged others. The anger stemmed not only from the fact that Lieberman served just one year in a non-combat role in the Israeli Forces, but also that national defence, considered by many to be sacrosanct, had become a political bargaining chip. Whoever sits in the Defence Ministry is responsible for the lives of Israel’s son and daughters, all of whom are required to complete several years of military service.
Prior to Yaalon quitting, it was believed that Netanyahu would offer him the foreign affairs portfolio as a consolation prize. However, Yaalon surprised him by resigning from his post in a very public manner and severely criticizing the country’s leadership.
The rift between Netanyahu and Yaalon first appeared when they found themselves on different sides of a public uproar. The first incident took place in Hebron on 24 March, when an Israeli soldier was caught on film shooting dead an already ‘neutralized’ Palestinian. Yaalon called the act immoral and contrary to Israeli military ethics. Netanyahu put out a similar statement, distancing the state of Israel from the soldier’s behaviour. The public response to the comments was brutal, with thousands accusing them of “selling out” the soldier to the Arabs, leftists and Israel’s enemies. In an attempt to contain the political damage, Netanyahu quickly backtracked and supported the soldier. A few weeks later, on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Israeli Military forces Deputy Chief of Staff, Major General Yair Golan, compared extremist trends in Israeli society to pre-war Germany. Again, there was public outrage. Yaalon defended Golan for speaking his mind, and expressed his disappointment in Netanyahu for not denouncing rightwing activists, who incited violence against judges and senior army commanders.
Yaalon’s military career was not without controversy either. He was the Israeli military chief of staff from July 2002 to June 2005, during the Second Intifada. His major focus was quelling the uprising, of which Operation Defensive Shield in Gaza in April 2002 was part. In December 2005, relatives of the victims of the Qana shelling in Lebanon filed a suit against Yaalon in Washington, DC. The shelling took place amid heavy fighting between the Israeli army and Hezbollah during Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996. The Israeli army fired artillery shells at a United Nations compound, where hundreds of Lebanese civilians had taken refuge. More than 106 people were killed and at least 116 were injured. In 2006, while Yaalon was in New Zealand on a private fundraising trip for the Jewish National Fund, an arrest warrant was issued for his alleged involvement in the July 2002 assassination of Hamas commander Salah Shehade in Gaza. The warrant was cancelled after New Zealand’s attorney-general declared there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.
When Yaalon resigned from the Knesset, he said he was taking a break from politics. However, it was less than a month later that he announced his candidacy for prime minister at a security conference in Herzliya. He could be a formidable opponent. For one thing, Netanyahu has been in power for nearly ten years. For another, many of Yaalon’s supporters in the Likud party have publicly criticized Netanyahu. Both Gideon Saar, the former Minister of Education, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon have been disappointed by the leader since he caved to the extreme rightwing members of his government. Yaalon’s political career and experience in the Israeli army will make him an attractive candidate in a country which often elects generals, among them Itzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. It is not clear whether he will form his own party or run against Netanyahu as a Likud candidate.
Yaalon accuses the prime minister of “blinding the country with virtual existential threats as a way of distracting from serious issues facing Israel”. Further, he says that instead of unifying the country, Netanyahu fosters division between Jews and Arabs and between right and left, in order to prolong his political career. He plans to offer an alternative to the current leadership by tackling economic and social woes including prevalent racism and sexism, and claims “we cannot just throw up our hands and say someone else will fix it”. He appeals to ‘middle Israel’, a segment of the centre left as well as those on left who feel abandoned by the Labour Party.
Yaalon (1950) was born into a working-class family affiliated with the Labour Party, and grew up on a left-leaning settlement. He was regarded with suspicion by many on the right, including prominent figures in the settlement movement, despite commencing his professional military career straight after the 1973 war. However, he was to the right of Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue and shared criticism of President Obama’s policy of seeking and concluding a nuclear agreement with Iran in 2014.
Perhaps this combination of distinguished military career, promises of tackling the real issues in Israeli society, support of officers who speak their mind and Netanyahu’s waning popularity will prove to be a successful formula for Yaalon’s attempt to win the next election.