JERUSALEM — Israel’s popular former defense minister, who was shoved aside last month by his boss, warned on Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a fearmonger who hypes threats against Israel in order to stay in power.
It was a blunt, even bitter, declaration of political war by Moshe Yaalon against his former governing partner Netanyahu, whom the ex-defense minister also 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.
Netanyahu came under attack on Thursday from multiple critics, including two former heads of Israel’s armed forces and a former prime minister, Ehud Barak, who asserted in a speech that there had been “a hostile takeover” of a “hijacked government” that had swung Israel so far to the right that it would alienate the world, as well as young Jews in the United States.
“No leader in the world believes a word that Netanyahu and his government says anymore,” Barak said.
The past two chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, the highest position the military, also went after the prime minister. Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi formed a movement to challenge Netanyahu on domestic issues, such as affordable housing and support for underdeveloped Israeli communities.
Still, it was Yaalon’s desertion and attack that must have stung the most.
Yaalon charged that Netanyahu and his top ministers exaggerate the security 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."
Netanyahu is seen by many Israeli voters as especially strong on security issues.
In his speech, spoken in Hebrew before an international audience at a security gathering at the Herzliya Conference, Yaalon said 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.
Netanyahu responded that just four months ago, at a conference in Munich, Yaalon called Iran an existential threat to Israel.
“One cannot express full confidence in the leadership when one is part of it and then say the complete opposite when you are outside,” the prime minister said. “Therefore, no importance should be ascribed to such political attacks."
Interestingly, Yaalon did not say in which political 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.”
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 common 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.”