JERUSALEM — Israel’s coalition government installed here last week is expected to push a “realistically hawkish” security agenda heavily anchored by military might and averse to ceding land for a dubious peace, yet attuned to the limitations of force.
Former officials and analysts expect prominent coalition leaders to narrow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s maneuvering room toward a Palestinian peace deal, and broaden prospects for coordinated U.S.-led action against the Iranian nuclear threat.
While unanimously resolute in their right to unilateral action in Iran, the security team influencing Netanyahu’s third term might be less likely to venture pre-emptive attack and more open to serving as Washington’s figurative — if not operational — wingman in halting Tehran’s nuclear weapons drive.
With avowed hardliner Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon replacing Ehud Barak as Israel’s defense minister, and all but two ministers among Netanyahu’s top ranks principally opposed to West Bank withdrawals, prospects for a two-state Palestinian peace deal are dim.
Yet the former military chief of staff who stemmed West Bank terror in a decisive 2002 ground war, and later sacrificed his command by opposing then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, is also pragmatic. He is known to prefer coordination with Washington against the Iranian nuclear threat, provided the two countries can agree on so-called red lines.
“This will be a government of realistic hawks, with Bogie having enormous influence in shaping the prime minister’s security strategy,” said Danny Ayalon, deputy foreign minister in Netanyahu’s previous government and a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.
Ayalon said Ya’alon is not alone in his preference for coordinated, rather than unilateral, action against the Iranian threat. “The expectation of many here is for the United States to lead the way.”
Israel’s future direction toward unilateral or U.S.-led action will be largely determined, he said, by how well the two countries can clarify the end game.
“Right now, the White House is committed to preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear weapon,” Ayalon said. “But our red line is to prevent them from having the capability for nuclear weapons. It’s a major difference.”
As strategic affairs and vice prime minister in Netanyahu’s earlier term, Ya’alon often clashed with Barak in security cabinet discussions on Iran and other issues. He opposed Barak’s management of last November’s surgical standoff operation in Gaza, insisting that ground troops were needed to deliver effective deterrence.
At a March 19 change of command ceremony at the Defense Ministry, Barak acknowledged clashing with Ya’alon in Netanyahu’s previous security cabinet.
“There were a number of occasions when we did not agree,” Barak said. “But we agreed that the only way to act as a government, in the special conditions which the State of Israel finds itself in, is to sit together ... and see what should and should not be done.”
Ya’alon’s deputy at MoD is Danny Danon, a Likud Party stalwart who actively supports expanding Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. He publicly endorsed Republican contender Mitt Romney in last year’s U.S. presidential campaign.
In an editorial titled “Obama Abandons Israel,” which is still posted on his government website, the former deputy speaker of the Knesset took Obama to task for questioning the legitimacy of Israeli settlements, and for calling for a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian pact based on 1967 borders.
Among his duties as Israel’s new deputy defense minister, Danon will oversee issues pertaining to Palestinian freedom of movement and Jewish construction in the disputed West Bank.
Retired Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, a former deputy chief of staff, is expected to replace Udi Shani as MoD director-general. As a former Israeli defense attaché to Washington, Harel has considerable experience in bilateral matters of strategic cooperation and maintains contacts with former colleagues in the political-military and industrial communities of both countries.
Ya’alon will retain retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, his former policy chief, as a senior adviser, possibly as head of MoD’s political-military directorate long headed by Amos Gilad. Yet another prospective member of Ya’alon’s senior team is Sima Shein, a strategic affairs specialist who served in the Mossad and on Israel’s National Security Council.
Avi Benayahu, a retired brigadier general and adviser to previous defense ministers, said he expects Ya’alon to be an authoritative, moderating force against less experienced, more politically extreme members of the coalition government.
“Especially in this period of unprecedented regional instability, Ya’alon will have to be the leg in the door,” he said. “Where there are gaps on political-military-strategic matters, his counsel is critical. He knows we can’t embarrass the United States with uncoordinated acts, and we won’t act vis-à-vis Turkey and the [Arabian] Gulf without coordinating with them first.”
In one of his first acts as defense minister, Ya’alon phoned U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to express his commitment to building a strong personal relationship and to strengthening bilateral security cooperation. Hagel reciprocated by announcing plans to visit Israel next month as Ya’alon’s guest.