Ya’alon Comes to Washington

Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s trip to Washington D.C. this week has come at a most volatile moment in the Middle East. As the Syrian civil war continues to spiral out of control, Iran and its proxies remain hell-bent on exerting hegemony in the region. Before meeting with his U.S. counterpart Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter later on in the day, Ya’alon spoke at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Monday morning.

“First of all I am here to discuss the cooperation between the United States and Israel regarding defense,” began the defense minister. “We do enjoy a superb relationship when it comes to the defense establishment -- with the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defense, personally between Ash Carter and myself; the armed forces on both sides; the intelligence agencies -- [all] for the benefit of our two countries,” he added.

Ya’alon, born Moshe Smilansky in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Haim, served as a reservist and participated in the liberation of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. He soon returned to active service, and commanded units in the Paratroopers Brigade as well as the Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s most elite Special Forces unit. In 2002, Ya’alon was promoted to serve as the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff. He was instrumental in leading the fight against Palestinian terrorism during the Second Intifada. At the time, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield, the largest-scale operation into the West Bank since the Six-Day War. The mission was to identify and to remove key actors within the various terror groups, and to disturb their line of production from financing to recruitment. The IDF soon apprehended the terrorists and gathered meaningful intelligence.  

When pressed by moderator Aaron David Miller, who serves as Vice President for New Initiatives and a Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, as to whether severe disagreements persist between the U.S. and Israel’s objectives in the region, Ya’alon said: “Of course [Israel has] certain worries regarding the future, mainly because of the Iranian deal. We believe Iran is more confident, and [freer] to act in the region -- with more money, as a result of the sanctions relief -- to finance Hizb’allah in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen… Our relationship between the U.S. and [ourselves] is characterized by open channels; sharing technologies. When it comes to challenges, we might have differences… We have differences of what should have been -- or what should be -- done in Syria. We worry that this rogue nation of Iran [perceives itself] as a central party in order to solve problems in the Middle East.”

Ya’alon underscored that Iran has continued to exploit its deal with the West to gain Shia hegemony in the region. He pointed to specific terror attacks in the past months, which were perpetrated by Iran’s proxies.

Ya’alon also chided President Barack Obama for mishandling attempts to resolve the Palestinian conflict with Israel. He faulted the president for not holding Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accountable for his role in the breakdown of peace talks. “When [Abbas] closed the door in front of both Secretary John Kerry in February 2014 and President Obama in March 2014, he wasn’t blamed. Why? He’s too weak to be accountable,” Ya’alon said. “The most important value that is missing in the Middle East is accountability. When [Abbas] closed the door in front of President Obama, he should have been blamed. He should be accountable.”

Later on Monday, Ya’alon met with Secretary of Defense Carter, in which the two discussed the pending defense package to Israel for the coming decade. Carter and Ya'alon "agreed upon an expansion of cooperation in the cyber sphere, out of an intent to improve cyber defenses in both countries," said Ya'alon’s spokesman, as reported in The Jerusalem Post. "Relations with the US are a cornerstone of our national security, and Secretary of Defense Carter is a true friend. I was pleased to discover a great understanding for our security needs in light of the changing reality in the region," said the defense minister.

Ya’alon visit to the U.S. coincided with urgent consultations at the United Nations, which also addressed continued Iranian violations. The consultations were delivered Monday “to discuss Iran’s recent ballistic missile launches, which the United States condemns as dangerous, destabilizing and provocative,” stated U.S. ambassador Samantha Power. “Given the multiple, interrelated conflicts in the Middle East, such launches – accompanied by strident and militaristic rhetoric – undermine prospects for peace. The United States was particularly troubled by reports that Iranian military leaders have claimed these missiles are designed to be a direct threat to Israel. We condemn such threats against one of our closest allies and another UN Member State,” she added.

Russia, which this week stated its surprising plans to remove military personnel from Syria, argued that the Iranian tests did not violate the resolution adopted by the Security Council after the Iran nuclear deal was signed. Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said Moscow had seen no such proof that the missiles could carry nuclear weapons.  Churkin concluded that this did not represent a violation of the resolution.

“The Council needs to take its responsibility and Russia seems to be lawyering its way to look for reasons not to act rather than stepping up and being prepared to shoulder our collective responsibility,” responded Ambassador Power when speaking to reporters at the UN.

The perilous situation in the region comes just after a Palestinian terrorist fatally stabbed 28-year-old American Taylor Force in Tel Aviv-Yafo. The ex-combat veteran and an MBA student at Vanderbilt University, Force was remembered at a memorial service at Ben Gurion Airport before his body was returned home. Deputy U.S. Ambassador William Grant and former Knesset Member Dov Lipman, as well as some U.S. military officers and Force’s friends, attended the ceremony.

“He was a perfect example of a U.S. army officer,” eulogized his friend David Simpkins. “He was humble, optimistic, hardworking… and he genuinely loved everyone regardless of their race, religion and creed.”

Force, a 2009 graduate of West Point, had been part of a group of 28 students and faculty who traveled to Israel to learn about global entrepreneurship through meetings with start-up companies. 

Jared Feldschreiber is a prolific writer and journalist who oft-times writes on security and diplomacy matters. Follow him on Twitter @jmoshe80