Israel’s popular former defense minister, who was shoved aside last month by his boss, warned on Thursday that Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was a fearmonger who hypes threats against Israel to scare the populace and to stay in power.
It was a blunt, even bitter, declaration of political war by Moshe Yaalon against his former governing partner Netanyahu, who the ex-defense minister accused of stoking ethnic and religious hatreds to cling to office.
Many tough things are said about Netanyahu all the time, but Yaalon’s speech was blistering — and potentially damaging coming from a fellow Likud party member who held the second most powerful post in Israel until May.
Yaalon charged that the prime minister and his top ministers exaggerate the threats Israelis face — from Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran — to distract the people from what he called the real challenges facing Israel.
“At this time and in the foreseeable future, there is not an existential threat to Israel,” the former defense minister said. “Israel is the strongest state in the region and there is an enormous gap between it and every country and organization around it. Therefore, it is appropriate for the leadership in Israel to stop scaring the citizens and to stop telling them that we are on the verge of a second Holocaust.”
In his speech, spoken in Hebrew before an international audience at a security conference in Herzliya, Yaalon announced he is running to replace Netanyahu in the next election. Yaalon did not refer to Netanyahu by name but the prime minister was clearly the target of his broadsides.
Interestingly, he did not say in which party he would run.
Yaalon was pushed from his post by Netanyahu in May and replaced by ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman, a former foreign minister and leader of a party composed mostly of Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel. Bringing Lieberman aboard increased Netanyahu’s governing coalition to 66 of 120 seats.
Yaalon said Israeli leaders had hyped the dangers posed by the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Yaalon himself was one of those staunch opponents to the deal, but no one more vociferously fought against the nuclear pact than Netanyahu, who condemned it in a speech before Congress last year.
The Iranian nuclear program, which Netanyahu has repeatedly declared the greatest danger facing Israel, “has been frozen in light of the deal signed by the world powers and does not constitute an immediate, existential threat for Israel,” Yaalon said.
In a statement following Yaalon’s speech, the Likud party said, “It’s amusing to see how fast Yaalon has changed his tune. It was only months ago that he said ‘Iran is an existential threat to Israel.’ Today, at the Herzliya conference, he said that there is no existential threat facing Israel.”
In his remarks, Yaalon accused Israel’s right-wing government of trying “cynically” to divert citizens’ attention.
“It is a mistaken approach to think that if we fill citizens with fear it will make them forget the corruption, the social gaps, the high cost of living and other challenges at the doorstep of the leadership,” he said.
Yaalon didn’t stop there. He called out Netanyahu and his circle for incitement and divisiveness.
“The leadership of Israel in 2016 is busy with inflaming passions and causing fear between Jews and Arabs, between right and left and between different ethnic groups in order to survive in power and earn another month or year,” he said, repeating a common jab against Netanyahu that he is most interested in staying in power — a not uncommon goal of many politicians.
“The job of leadership is to bring together the people and not to tear it apart, incite and urge attacks,” Yaalon said.
Yaalon said he has received “thousands” of appeals to run for high office: “There is an aspiration that crosses party lines of the vast and sane majority of the country to see a stately leadership that will lead the country according to a compass of conscience and not according to polls or reactions on social media.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · William Booth