Israeli Defense Minister: US trumped at 'Persian bazaar'

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon says Israel is on its own in facing the threat from Iran. Previously, he opposed a unilateral Israeli strike.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (l.) and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon sit in front of a display of M302 rockets, found aboard the Klos C ship, at a navy base in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat March 10, 2014. Yaalon says Israel is on its own in facing the threat from Iran.

Testing the assumptions behind the headlines

The Israeli defense minister made waves in local press today with comments appearing to back a possible unilateral strike on Iran. The message is a major shift for Moshe Yaalon, who has a reputation for urging caution on the issue.

But his apparent change of heart may be less emphatic than first appears. He has never ruled out a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities; he questioned the timing and what country should lead it. Domestic politics may also be tilting him towards a hawkish policy. 

Still, his speech at Tel Aviv University, as reported by the liberal Haaretz newspaper, is notable for saying the US can't be trusted to protect Israel.

“We had thought the ones who should lead the campaign against Iran is the United States,” [the liberal Haaretz newspaper quoted Mr. Yaalon as saying at a Tel Aviv University lecture yesterday.] “But at some stage the United States entered into negotiations with them, and unhappily, when it comes to negotiating at a Persian bazaar, the Iranians were better.”

“Therefore, on this matter, we have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us but ourselves,” he said.

Haaretz correspondent Barak Ravid, one of Israel’s most prominent and well-connected diplomatic reporters, characterized Yaalon’s remarks as a “sea change,” bringing him into closer alignment with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yaalon has long advocated keeping a credible military option on the table, but usually in the context of US and European support. In 2012, when Mr. Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak threatened to strike Iran alone to prevent it from obtaining nuclear-weapon capabilities, Yaalon – then strategic affairs minister – was among those who cautioned against the idea. 

However, a profile by Al-Monitor suggests he was not opposed to an Israeli strike in principle, but rather had reservations about the timing. 

Ya’alon believes an Israeli attack to be both feasible and necessary, but only when the time is ripe and Israel is positioned to win. During the last term [prior to January 2013 elections], he was not convinced that we had reached that point.

Whether Yaalon, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, has now abandoned such reservations is not clear.

“I think you would need a little bit more than that [yesterday’s lecture] to base the view that this is a major change,” says Emily Landau, director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Project at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.

And even if Yaalon was directly advocating for an Israeli strike in his remarks yesterday, that may be more of an attempt at diplomatic pressure than actual operational intent at this stage. 

Some speculate that internal politics may also be involved. “There is no foreign policy, there is just [domestic] policy,” says security analyst Reuven Pedhazur, paraphrasing Henry Kissinger and suggesting that Yaalon is trying to shore up his reputation as a leader on security issues. “This is the answer.” 

But others say Yaalon’s comments reflect grave Israeli concern over what is seen as America’s naïve approach to negotiating with Iran.

“Desperation motivated him,” says political scientist Abraham Diskin, professor emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “The fact that if Israel doesn’t take care of the situation, … Iran will have nuclear armament.”

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