When Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon criticized American foreign policy on Iran by saying last week that “comfortable Westerners prefer to put off confrontation,” was he speaking truth to power, truth to diminished power or prodding the West to see things Israel’s way?
As he accused the United States of showing weakness in the region, Ya’alon concluded, “On this matter we have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us, but ourselves.” This was just two weeks after Mr. Ya’alon charged that Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to bring about peace between Israelis and Palestinians stemmed from an “incomprehensible obsession” and “a messianic feeling.” After strong protests by the U.S., Ya’alon apologized, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to reiterate America’s unprecedented support for Israel.
This time, too, there was backtracking after strong U.S. protests, with Ya’alon apologizing in a phone call to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. But despite Ya’alon’s retreat, he said what he said because he meant it.
Ya’alon’s comments are consistent with messages the U.S. has received from allies in the Sunni Arab world: that the diminished American presence in the Middle East is causing a vacuum that is encouraging Iran, Syria and its ally Russia to project their power further abroad and to take actions which threaten to destabilize the region. This dynamic seems to be playing out, as well, with Russia’s grab of Crimea. And while none of the troublemakers can match the power of the United States, they seem to have the motivation and urgency that America lacks.
Israel, too, is highly motivated to prevent a nuclear threat from Iran. Add that to the heightened anxiety around the mounting turmoil in the region, and you have a recipe for increased tension and instability. What’s needed is regional American involvement of a scale matching the energy and determination Mr. Kerry is bringing to the Israel-Palestinian negotiations – one that is consistent, persistent, focused and committed. Mr. Ya’alon, a supporter of continued Israeli settlement on the West Bank, might have been hoping to nudge peace negotiations onto the back burner with his criticism. But that doesn’t discount the weight of his argument, that the current United States is perceived as a much weaker version of itself in a region that desperately needs strong leadership.
A weak United States helps no one, least of all Israel.