If this is a coincidence, it is an extraordinary one. Twice in less than two months, remarks that Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon made in closed forums about key issues on Israel’s national security agenda were leaked to the media. In both cases, the media used the leaked remarks to foment a crisis in relations between Israel and the Obama administration.
In both cases, the Obama administration has used the opportunities created by the Israeli media to bash Ya’alon and pressure Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to fire him.
In January, Yediot Aharonot leaked Ya’alon’s private remarks about US Secretary of State John Kerry’s irrational focus on the mordant peace process between Israel and the Palestinians at a time when there is both relative peace in Israel, and Israel’s neighbors are undergoing political upheavals and civil war. Together with the other two musketeers of Israel’s far-left media – Haaretz and Channel 2, Yediot used the story to provoke a fight between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration. Acting on cue, the White House and State Department demanded that Ya’alon apologize for remarks that were made in private. Ya’alon sufficed with a terse statement that he was sorry if anyone took offense from his private remarks.
And now, two months later, Ya’alon’s remarks have been leaked again.
Last week Ya’alon spoke at a forum at Tel Aviv University that was closed to the media. There he bemoaned the Obama administration’s abandonment of the US’s traditional role as the world’s policeman and considered its significance for Israel. With regard to Iran’s nuclear program, Ya’alon said that the time had come for Israel to recognize that the US has not met its expectations and taken the lead to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. As a consequence, “We [Israelis] have to look out for ourselves.”
Haaretz published Ya’alon’s leaked remarks and then, with its partners, Yediot and Channel 2, set about fomenting a crisis in relations with the US. As it did in January, last week the Obama administration jumped at the opportunity. State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki stopped just short of demanding Ya’alon’s resignation.
What is going on here? Obama and Kerry say far worse things about Israel’s leaders as a matter of course than Ya’alon said about either of them. And nothing Ya’alon said was wrong. Nothing that he said was unique. Similar statements are being heard from spurned US allies around the region and the world. Not only were Ya’alon’s statements reasonable, the vast majority of Israelis share his sentiments both on the untrustworthiness of US security guarantees and on the absence of prospects for peace with the PLO.
So why leak his remarks and present them as unforgivable faux pas?
The first reason is that the media have been working for seven years to intimidate Israel’s policymakers into not noticing that the US will do nothing to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. And they can’t intimidate Ya’alon.
The US effectively abandoned the option of using military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons at the end of 2007 with the publication of the National Intelligence Estimate. The 2007 NIE falsely reported Iran had abandoned its quest for nuclear weapons in 2003. After the report was released, then president George W. Bush had no political capacity to attack Iran.
The remote chance that the US would attack Iran’s nuclear installations at some future date was taken off the table completely with Obama’s inauguration in 2009. From the outset Obama made clear through word and deed that his goal was to appease the mullahs, not confront them.
The fact that Israel continued to cling to the empty claim that the US would act to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons for seven years after the 2007 NIE is testament to both the media’s power to intimidate and to its corruption. The media is supposed to facilitate the free flow of information. But they blocked it by stifling discussion of the credibility of US leadership in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. And they attacked as reckless every leader that indicated a willingness to act independently against Iran.
Ya’alon apparently is not afraid of the media. He knows he can credibly demonstrate to the public that Israel can and must secure its own interests, regardless of the US position. Since they cannot get him to toe their line, the media triumvirate has apparently decided to undermine the public’s trust in him by presenting him as a reckless amateur.
Here the issue of the leak is critical to understand. In holding the off-record briefings, Ya’alon did nothing wrong.
Indeed, he behaved as a leader ought to. When the leader in an open society is considering a significant shift in national policies, it is reasonable for him to share his thinking with policy elites, whether in academia or the media, to prepare the ground and gauge their responses. Doing so in private enables leaders to consider major shifts away from the spotlight.
It was the leakers, not Ya’alon, who behaved recklessly and unprofessionally.
He spoke off the record to prevent a diplomatic embarrassment for himself and the country. They leaked his remarks in order to embarrass him and initiate a diplomatic crisis.
Luckily – and ironically – their plan backfired. To discredit Ya’alon the media inadvertently enabled Ya’alon, one of the most trusted men in Israel, to initiate discussion about the Palestinians and the Iranians that they have blocked for years – and to do it on his terms.
And now it is too late to stop the conversation.
The media chose to focus the campaign against Ya’alon on his purported irresponsibility and loose lips because they cannot argue with him on substance.
His claim that there is no chance that Palestinians will agree to a peace deal with Israel is self-evident.
His assertion that Israel cannot trust Obama to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power is undeniable.
And this is why the media chooses to create artificial crises with the US over Ya’alon’s private remarks and why the Obama administration so enthusiastically cooperates with Channel 2, Yediot and Haaretz.
Both understand that the only hope they have of coercing the government and the public to maintain faith with their failed and dangerous policies regarding the PLO and Iran is by threatening that Israel will pay a price for abandoning them. And the price they quote is the durability of the US-Israel alliance.
To date, the public hasn’t been moved by their antics. Polls taken after the first leak in January revealed that Ya’alon is the most popular minister in the government.
And while it is important to be concerned when the media colludes with a hostile US administration to bring down the defense minister, it is also important not to get too carried away.
Israelis know that they can trust Ya’alon more than either Obama or the media. And they agree with him. With these assets in hand, it is hard to see how Ya’alon can lose this fight.