Bogie Man

While the November elections are front and center for Americans right now, interesting forces are simmering in Israel, ones that could remake the political landscape as they come to a full boil in the near future.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has taken a very public stance on foreign affairs in opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claiming the threat levels to Israel have been exaggerated for the sake of political expediency. He’s indicated he will create a new right-center party and run for national leadership in Israel’s next elections.

It’s hard not to pay attention to “Bogie” Ya’alon’s defense and security pedigree. Called up as a reservist during the Yom Kippur War, he has ascended to prominent posts in the government, including chief of staff for the Israeli Defense Forces and as mentioned, his defense department portfolio. Operation Defensive Shield, during the Second Intifada, occurred during his IDF oversight. He’s also served at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that counts amongst its experts both Dennis Ross and St. Louis native David Makovsky.

Ya’alon has been an outspoken, not always entirely consistent and sometimes controversial figure regarding Israeli defense and domestic affairs. Nevertheless, when Netanyahu’s current stint as prime minister began, Ya’alon received two cabinet placements and shortly thereafter, was reassigned to the defense portfolio, replacing Ehud Barak.

His resignation from that post three years later, just this past spring (and after many glowing reviews of his performance), points to the disagreements that Ya’alon has with the current prime minister and the Likud bloc. Claiming that “extreme and dangerous elements” had assumed control of his party and the nation, Ya’alon lashed out at Netanyahu and others for their leadership.

His political skills were called into question at the time. This from Noam Amir’s May 20 analysis in the Jerusalem Post (republished from the Hebrew Maariv Hashavua): “He never knew how to walk the tightrope between being the defense minister of the State of Israel and being a member of the Likud central committee. When he publicly took a stand against the extremists and fulminators, they excommunicated him.”

Despite that critique, Ya’alon has gone all in on the political front, and the battle lines are becoming even more firmly drawn.

The former defense minister is convinced that Netanyahu’s public rhetoric is largely fear-based and serves to prey on Israelis’ concerns about existential threats to the nation’s safety, security and ultimately, its existence. He has stated that Israel stands highly capable of defending itself from threats associated with Palestinian groups, Iran and beyond.

Ya’alon says that the threat is greatly overblown for the sake of politics. “We see an inflammation of tension in society, and politicians are to blame,” Ya’alon said at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange last month. “In order to get a few more votes, especially among millennials, they are behaving aggressively — especially on social media. It starts with attacks on Arab settlers or haredim, and now it is also Ashkenazim against Sephardim. From where does it come? Inflaming tension is not leadership.”

With tensions high due to attacks on the streets of Jerusalem and continued threats of annihilation issuing from ayatollahs and terror-based groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, it’s easy to understand how the criticisms by Ya’alon toward Netanyahu might be perceived as unattentive to the concerns voiced on the streets of Israel.

Still, there’s a real and legitimate concern in his message.  A political or governance agenda that is based largely on fears, perceived or actual, can wreak havoc on any society, and we’ve certainly seen that here at home as well. Sides are drawn into a “we vs. them” mentality, distrust among various constituencies ensues, domestic priorities are shunned.

One of Ya’alon’s particular callouts is the claim that an independent Israeli media is in peril. He is not the only one to make this claim, and in fact, the daily Israel Hayom newspaper, owned by magnate Sheldon Adelson, has taken a large dose of criticism for being a mouthpiece for the views of the current administration.

You don’t have to agree with Ya’alon on his assessment of Israel’s ability to protect itself, or even with regard to his complaint that fear is replacing rationality as the basis for public policy discussions in the Jewish State. But it is important to have loud and well-regarded public voices to remind us, as Ya’alon is doing, that a nation cannot sacrifice its basic tenets of freedom and democracy even at the most unsettling of times. We’ve seen that show, and it can end pretty badly.