Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, known as a hawk, heightened U.S.-Israeli tensions earlier this year by criticizing John Kerry, saying the U.S. secretary of state had a “misplaced obsession and messianic fervor” about the peace process. On a trip to the United States this past week during which he met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Yaalon spoke with the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth about the threat he sees from Iran, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Excerpts:
Lally Weymouth: You caused quite a stir with your remarks about Secretary Kerry.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon: We overcame that.
Secretary Kerry recently said the lack of resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is leading to street anger and recruitment for ISIS. What is your response?
Unfortunately, we find the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dominated by too many misconceptions. We don’t find any linkage between the uprising in Tunisia, the revolution in Egypt, the sectarian conflict in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mainly, these come from the Sunni-Shia conflict, without any connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The core of the conflict is their reluctance to recognize our right to exist as a nation state of the Jewish people—whether it is [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen or his predecessor [Yasser] Arafat. There are many who believe that just having some territorial concessions will conclude it. But I don’t think this is right.
Will territorial concessions bring peace?
No, they would be another stage of the Palestinian conflict, as we experienced in the Gaza Strip. We disengaged from the Gaza Strip to address their territorial grievances. They went on attacking us. The conflict is about the existence of the Jewish state and not about the creation of the Palestinian one. Any territory that was delivered to them after Oslo became a safe haven for terrorists.
Bearing that in mind, to conclude that after the [recent] military operation in Gaza this is a time for another withdrawal from Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] is irrational. If we withdraw now from Judea and Samaria, we might face another Hamastan.
So you think Hamas would take over the West Bank?
Sure. We just recently intercepted a terror network in the area of Ramallah. We arrested 96 Hamas terrorists.
They were supposed to be staging a coup to overthrow Abu Mazen?
Yes. They were operated and recruited by Saleh al-Arouri from Istanbul. We saved Abu Mazen from them overthrowing him. It might have become a Hamas-governed entity with Iranian arms.
Last summer, you and Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu decided to limit the operation in Gaza—not to reoccupy Gaza.
Was that the right decision?
Absolutely. It was the right decision. From the very beginning, we understood it might be a tremendous mistake to send our troops to take over and occupy the Gaza Strip. That’s why we decided to avoid it and to direct our military operation toward the endgame, which was the Egyptian initiative [a cease-fire with no preconditions].
Why did the operation take 51 days?
Hamas is not marginal. It is a well-equipped militia and has 10,000 rockets, and the know-how and indigenous capabilities to produce rockets [which they got] from Iran. This is not just a terror organization.
How do you see the threat from ISIS?
ISIS is a new phenomenon, originating from al-Qaida. This is not a threat for us. This is a threat to the free world as they actually claim to [want to] defeat all those who are not ready to follow their religious, Islamic way—whether they are Muslims, Christians, Kurds, Alawites, Shias, or Jews. The idea to confront them by creating a coalition is an awakening. … Hopefully the coalition led by the United States will contain them.
Kobane [a Syrian town near the Turkish border] is about to fall. The ground forces seem to be weak.
I hope it is not too late to deal with it. Air superiority is very important.
It is important, but is it enough?
It is not enough. Don’t misunderstand me—I don’t recommend Western troops to be deployed. But the troops on the ground, whether they are Kurds, Iraqi armed forces or Syrian militias that are not extremists, should be supported by the West in order to be able to defeat ISIS.
Is it too late in Syria?
It is never too late. Syria is a microcosm of the region. What we see now is fragmentation, the collapse of the nation-state.
So you see a breakup in Syria?
Yes. We have Alawistan—an Alawite enclave led by President Bashar al-Assad, who controls 25 percent of the Syrian territory. We have Syrian Kurdistan in the northeastern part [of the country]. We have many Sunni enclaves. But the Sunnis are divided—we have Muslim Brotherhood Sunnis, we have ISIS, we have Jabhat al-Nusra. We have the Free Syrian Army, which we believe should be supported.
What is Israel’s strategy in Syria?
We don’t want to be involved. We enjoy a relatively calm situation on the border of the Golan Heights. They understand that if they violate our sovereignty, we immediately respond.
How are you going to ensure that in rebuilding Gaza, Hamas does not build more tunnels?
We believe there is the potential to keep a calm situation along the border with Gaza [since] Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad paid a heavy price [in] our military operation last summer. We understand there is a problem in Gaza—an economic problem, the need for reconstruction.
Part of our interest is to pave the way for the Palestinian Authority to get into the Gaza Strip. I’m not sure Abu Mazen is ready to take responsibility.
Right now doesn’t the Palestinian Authority have responsibility only for the crossings?
Not yet. But the opening of the Rafah crossing point is conditioned on the deployment of the Palestinian Authority troops. We proposed for them to be deployed on the Palestinian side of our crossing points as well.
Do you believe in a two-state solution?
You can call it the new Palestinian empire. We don’t want to govern them, but it is not going to be a regular state for many reasons.
What does that mean—the Palestinian empire?
Autonomy. It is going to be demilitarized.
In Gaza and the West Bank?
It is up to them. According to the agreement, they should be demilitarized. It is up to Abu Mazen if he is able or if he wants to demilitarize Gaza. Otherwise, we are not going to talk about any final settlement.
Is Abu Mazen the best Palestinian leader you’re going to get?
I don’t know, but he is not a partner for the two-state solution. He doesn’t recognize the existence of the Jewish state.
He says he is against violence.
Fine. But this is a tactical consideration. He believes he might get more by what he calls “political resistance”—going to the United Nations or to international bodies to delegitimize us. He prefers it to violence because in his experience, terror doesn’t pay off.
Is that why you said Secretary Kerry should just get a Nobel Prize and go home? Do you think the West just doesn’t get it?
I spoke about misconceptions. It is a misunderstanding, without naming anyone. It might be naiveté or wishful thinking—“We the Westerners know what is good for the Arabs.” To believe that you can have democratization with elections … it is collapsing in front of us. And part of it is ignorance, yes.
Israeli-U.S. relations are in terrible shape. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama had a bad meeting this month. During the Gaza operation, for the first time, missile shipments didn’t go through automatically.
The issue of Hellfire missiles has been solved. It was a bureaucratic issue.
It doesn’t look like an unbreakable bond if, in the middle of a war, the administration decides to review what has always been military-to-military arms transfers.
I can tell you that between the Pentagon and the Israel Defense Forces there is an unbreakable bond.
What about the politicians?
We have disputes.
It seems to be a deep dispute.
With all the disputes, the United States is Israel’s strategic ally.
The Nov. 24 deadline for an Iranian nuclear agreement is approaching. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that no deal is better than a bad deal. What do you hope comes out of these talks?
We are concerned about the potential deal. Because the framework of this deal is about how many centrifuges should this regime have. Why should they have the indigenous capability to enrich uranium? If they need it for civilian purposes, they can get enriched uranium from the United States or from Russia. Why do they insist on having the indigenous capability? Because they still have the aspiration to have a nuclear bomb.
With a bad deal—saying, “We will keep this regime from having a bomb for a year or year and a half”—what does that mean? What about the missile delivery systems, which are not discussed? Why should they have missiles ready to adopt nuclear warheads?
And they do?
Yes, hundreds of them. And what about their being a rogue regime instigating terror all over the Middle East and beyond? They are not involved in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen to serve American interests. This is not discussed. By rehabilitating the economy, they might feel confident to go on with these rogue activities, and at a certain point decide to break out from the deal and to have a bomb. That’s why our prime minister said that no deal is better than a bad deal.
And you agree with him?
Of course. In a deal they are going to get rid of any pressure. In the end, we should be able to defend ourselves by ourselves.
Does that mean Israel alone would consider using a military option?
It’s enough to say we should be ready to defend ourselves by ourselves.
Can Israel do it alone?
Let’s wait and see.
As long as Benjamin Netanyahu wants to run for office, will you not run for prime minister?
As long as he is going the right way, why should I challenge him?
Do you intend to run for prime minister one day?
I don’t know. If the people of Israel want me, I will have to consider it.