Stephen Oryszczuk
Stephen Oryszczuk

The loudest parting shot Ya’alon could have fired

Parting shots are often the most accurate – and the most deadly.

Do you remember Iain Duncan-Smith’s resignation letter in March? The Work and Pensions Secretary and paid-up member of the Tories’ inner circle penned it as David Cameron and George Osborne pushed their latest welfare cuts, this time targeting the disabled. “A compromise too far,” said IDS. Ouch.

Do you also remember Baroness Warsi’s words in 2014, as the highly-regarded Foreign Office Minister quit Cameron’s government over its lack of reaction to Israel’s actions in Gaza? “Morally indefensible,” she said. Pow!

So it was last week in Israel, when widely-respected Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon resigned his cabinet portfolio and seat in the Knesset. The tough but pragmatic former IDF chief of staff said “extremist and dangerous elements” had “taken over Israel and [Benjamin Netanyahu’s] Likud Party”. Bullseye.

Addressing soldiers, he later warned that: “An army needs to win, but it also needs to remain humane. Even after the battle or the operation or the war, we need to maintain our values and remain human beings.”

Everyone knew what he meant. An IDF soldier who shot an injured (and obviously disabled) Palestinian man in the head in March as he lay untreated on the ground following an attack is currently being lauded as a “hero” by many in Israel. Netanyahu, momentarily unfurling Justice’s blindfold, even called the soldier’s family to express sympathy.

As Defence Minister, Ya’alon criticised the soldier’s actions, as did Israel’s most senior officers, but he was then himself castigated for his insistence that the soldier stand trial. Suddenly, it seemed clear whose thoughts Netanyahu valued the most.

Ya’alon’s words on departure last week were designed as a wake-up call, but it is far from clear whether his intended recipients heard it, or – if they did – cared.

Those wondering what he meant need only look at his replacements. Israel’s new Defence Minister now seems to be Avigdor Lieberman, and taking Ya’alon’s Knesset seat is American-born Yehuda Glick.

The latter came to prominence for leading religious Jews up to a mosque complex on Temple Mount, where an uneasy status quo prohibits Jews from praying. His forays, one of which saw him arrested for breaking the arm of a Muslim woman, are seen as triggering the latest round of violence, which began in late September.

Lieberman, meanwhile, is now Israel’s second most powerful politician. For those unfamiliar with this Russian-speaking politician repeatedly investigated for corruption, he has questioned the loyalty of Israel’s Arab citizens, called for the removal of Arabic as an official language, suggested the wholesale “transfer” of Israeli Arabs from large areas of the country, and advocated a full military takeover of the Gaza Strip and its 1.7 million people.

These two, one suspects, may represent the tip of Ya’alon’s “dangerous extremist element”. So, where now?

The New York Times this week called Lieberman’s appointment “a baffling choice” given that his previous stint as foreign minister was “disastrous” for U.S-Israel relations. Analysts expect him to make his presence felt by a series of small but escalating measures: the reduction of Palestinian work permits, perhaps, or the closure of some Palestinian areas on “security” grounds.

Beyond antagonising millions of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, he could also upset Israel’s allies, such as Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has recently called for the two-state solution Lieberman is so opposed to. Israel’s likely new Defence Minister has already threatened to bomb the Aswan Dam, on which much of the Egyptian economy relies. Now he has the commanders to do it.

Heavy hang the words of Ya’alon. The former commander of Israel’s elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, he is no softie, having spent 40 years killing Israel’s enemies, so it is – or should be – remarkable that he now he sees her enemies as within.

His warning of “extremist and dangerous elements” having taken over Israel should be as loud as any parting shot this former soldier ever fired. Sadly, it is unlikely to be as accurate or as deadly.

About the Author
Stephen Oryszczuk is the Jewish News Foreign Editor
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