Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon this week performed some unintended truth-telling. He meant to stoke the right-wing embers against U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his uphill peace efforts, but his comments also speak to his own attitude and limitations, and those of some fellow senior officials.As he told Yediot, purportedly not for attribution:
"The American security plan presented to us is not worth the paper it's written on.... It contains no peace and no security. Only our continued presence in Judea and Samaria and the River Jordan will endure that Ben-Gurion Airport and Netanya don't become targets for rockets from every direction. American Secretary of State John Kerry, who turned up here determined and acting out of misplaced obsession and messianic fervor, cannot teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians."
Truth Number 1: Even as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu bemoans the lack of progress, he and his core coalition colleagues are actively trying to sabotage the negotiations.
We now have one more instance where Netanyahu's government is damaging the climate for talks with the Palestinians, whose own failings don't diminish Israel's need to normalize its borders and demographics. All sides perennially leak sensitive information and badmouth each other, but any progress in the current process has been sustained partly because all participants agreed not to leak any details. Ya'alon has publicly walked back his comments somewhat, but Netanyahu has yet to disavow the sentiments. And the notion that Netanyahu's circle wouldn't routinely (and anonymously) trash-talk President Obama and friends -- as far back as early 2008 -- moves further into the realm of wishful thinking.
Truth Number 2: The process is based on unrealistic expectations, as Ya'alon says, but as much for Israeli as for Palestinian absolutism.
If Ya'alon's outburst succeeds in scuttling the current U.S. draft, it may be for the best, but again -- not in a way that Ya'alon or Netanyahu would welcome. Kerry has been pushing the Palestinian side to accept Netanyahu's demand that they recognize Israel "as a Jewish state". This recent addition to Netanyahu's list of pre-conditions (whatever happened to "without preconditions") has no precedent in Israeli peace efforts, and is not needed for securing a workable deal. It's an ideological imposition, opening the door to an endless barrage of competing symbols and grievances. If Netanyahu were serious, he would at least publicly rebuke Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for repeatedly calling to disown Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. If Kerry does have to go back to the drawing board, he'll have a chance to rethink his support for Netanyahu's deal-breaking Jewish "obsession."
Truth Number 3: Netanyahu's "coalition" is an all-out government of rivals vying to either unseat or succeed him, and the "peace process" is just one more piece of meat.
Ya'alon can plead "not for attribution," but insiders would immediately credit him with standing up to Netanyahu and -- more proudly -- to the over-bearing American interloper. No one in the current government earned votes because of a commitment to making peace with the Palestinians, and no one (except, perhaps, pro-peace Justice Minister Tzipi Livni) is going to choose peacemaking over leveraging more votes in the Knesset or at the next election. Belittling the peace process, which most right-wing politicians discount even on a good day, is a cheap way into voters' hearts.
Truth Number 4: Yes, there is messianism in the room, not least among Netanyahu, Ya'alon, Lieberman, and their lieutenants. They should be the last ones to act shocked.
Ya'alon dismissively attributes Kerry's enthusiasm to "misplaced obsession and messianic fervor," a label befitting key members of the Israeli Government. How else to explain the insistence on releasing scores of terrorist murderers as a sign of good faith, when halting settlement expansion could have equally bolstered Abbas' hometown credibility -- and without saddling him with a posse of embittered, old-school rejectionists?
The priority on holding and consolidating territory, even at the expense of effective security -- even at the risk of eroding European support for Obama's five years of stricter sanctions on Iran -- can easily be described as an obsession. What else, if not "messianic fervor," can explain the avoidance of any real reckoning with the spiraling demographic crisis, compounded by the Palestinian power vacuum and Iran's forceful encroachment? It takes a good dose of messianic juice to think that ignoring or facilitating the problem (for example, by boosting Hamas at Abbas' expense) will protect Israel from the waters of reality rising around it.
Truth Number 5: Netanyahu and his likeminded coalition partners continue to misrepresent internal Israeli disagreements as though they're all about Washington forcing Israel's hand.
Misplaced? Ya'alon offloads an internal Israeli debate onto Kerry's plate. He disparages the Secretary's plan because it excludes a permanent Israeli security presence along the border with Jordan, even as Israelis themselves debate the need or value of such a presence in the wake of Israel's 1994 peace treaty with Jordan. But to an Israeli audience, it is easier to ridicule a presumptuous patrician from America, where all the inhabitants are known to be naive and paternalistic.
In much the same way, Netanyahu blames Obama for negotiating away Israel's first-strike advantage against Iran, even though the bulk of his security elite warn against a military attack on strategic and operational grounds. So, misplace on -- it's so much easier than facing your critics right down the hall.
Truth Number 6: Many Israelis, including those running the show, believe they have nothing to learn from an American Secretary of State, or from any U.S. officials, security experts, or Jewish community leaders. They've been in "conflict with the Palestinians" their entire lives, and they're good at it. Just ask them.