Netanyahu’s former defence minister Moshe Ya'alon is now on a mission to defeat him

Moshe Ya'alon served in Netanyahu's government for seven years. Now he is forming his own party to run against him. - AFP or licensors

It was 1.30pm and Moshe Ya'alon was in his office in the heart of the Israeli defence ministry when his aides brought him the shaky mobile phone video.

The footage showed a group of Israeli soldiers gathered around a wounded Palestinian man who had been shot that morning after he stabbed one of their comrades in the city of Hebron. 

The troops mainly ignored the injured man until one of them, a young medic named Elor Azaria, calmly cocked his rifle and fired a single bullet into the Palestinian’s brain

For Mr Ya'alon, then serving as defence minister after a 37-year military career that began as a paratrooper and ended as Israel’s top general, the shooting was a clear betrayal of military code and the rule of law. 

But Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw something else in the footage: a potential political crisis that could pit his coalition government against his nationalist voters, who were overwhelmingly sympathetic to what the soldier had done

While Mr Ya'alon forcefully condemned the shooting, the prime minister hedged and eventually sided with loud voices on the Right portraying the soldier as a son of Israel being unfairly persecuted by the military. 

The cracks which opened between the two men over the Hebron shooting soon widened into a political chasm that would destroy their seven-year partnership in government and set Mr Ya'alon on a political mission to unseat his former boss. 

Today, the gruff 66-year-old former soldier is forming his own political party to restore what he calls “the statesmanlike Right” in Israel. 

Moshe Ya'alon (left) was a member of Mr Netanyahu's Likud party and served in government with him for seven years Credit: EPA/DANIEL BAR-ON

He promises to maintain Mr Netanyahu’s hawkish approach to security and he supports Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. And Mr Ya'alon takes the bleak view that a two-state solution is neither possible nor desirable anytime soon because the Palestinians are not prepared for peace. 

But he rejects what he sees as the cheap populism of the current government: caving to the political demands of extremist Jewish settlers; ministers inciting against judges and the media; and the use of racist dog whistles against Israel’s Arab minority. 

He also opposes plans for sweeping annexation of land in the West Bank, as advocated by the far-Right of Mr Netanyahu's coalition.

“Political considerations are overwhelming what I think are our true interests,” Mr Ya'alon told The Telegraph. “Too many politicians are operating according to Facebook likes rather than substantial considerations or objectives.” 

Known universally in Israel by his nickname “Bogie” (confusingly, Mr Netanyahu is known as Bibi while the leader of the Labour Party goes by Bougie), Mr Ya'alon is the son of a Holocaust survivor mother and a Ukrainian father whose brother was murdered in an anti-Semitic attack.

Moshe Ya'alon served as chief of staff, the head of the Israeli military, from 2002 to 2005. Credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

He grew up in the coastal city Haifa in a house without a telephone and has been involved in nearly every Israeli war since 1973 either as a combatant, a commander or a minister. His memoirs leap from stories about chasing Hizbollah in Lebanon to describing killing a Palestinian militant with a hand grenade. 

In short, Mr Ya'alon is the type of former military leader that Israelis often elevate to the prime minister’s office. But in an age when populism is roiling global politics it is not clear that his sober but sometimes clunking style is what voters are looking for. 

Polls show him winning only around five seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament, far behind the main challenger to Mr Netanyahu, a former journalist named Yair Lapid whose centrist party is polling between 20 and 25 seats. 

Mr Ya'alon is relaxed about the politics arguing that his party is brand new and has not yet made its case to the public. “In a democracy it’s up to the people. I hope that in being exposed to the Israeli public in the near future I will have the opportunity to convince them to support my way.”    

Mr Ya'alon believes the government has too often caved to the wishes of extreme settlers. Credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty

The polls have taken on a fierce new urgency as Mr Netanyahu is embroiled in several criminal investigations into alleged corruption. He denies any wrongdoing but if he is charged Israel could soon be heading for new elections. 

Mr Ya'alon served in Mr Netanyahu’s government from 2009 until May last year, when he resigned after the prime minister offered his post as defence minister to one of the very same populists who had clamored in defence of the Hebron soldier.

The long relationship raises an obvious question: if Mr Ya'alon was able to work with Mr Netanyahu for years - through wars in Gaza and political crises - why did their differences  suddenly become irreconcilable in 2016?

Mr Ya'alon argues that the prime minister changed after the 2015 elections, when he rallied Right-wing voters to the polls with an infamous election day warning that Arab citizens were turning out “in droves”

“Since the last elections he has been changed,” Mr Ya'alon said. “It’s very easy to mobilise by hatred, by fear, by external threats. It’s very easy to manipulate the stomach of a human being rather than his head. I believe in talking to the head of the people and not to the stomach.”

While the former defence minister’s call for civil discourse may appeal to some Israeli liberals, his staunchly Right-wing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may also make it difficult for them to actually support him. 

He argues that the Palestinian leadership is not actually interested in peace, saying Palestinian children are raised to hate Israel and Palestinian society glorifies “martyrs” who kill Israelis.   

Believing therefore there is no prospect of a final settlement between the two sides in the near future, Mr Ya'alon calls instead for “managing” the occupation in the West Bank and the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza. 

The UN has warned that Gaza could become uninhabitable by 2020 as its population grows but its infrastructure crumbles Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

His plan is to allow the Palestinians autonomy but not statehood and to improve their economic situation while forcefully deterring Hamas in Gaza and maintaining Israel’s military control in the West Bank.      

Isn’t managing the conflict, rather than trying to end it, an example of the lack of leadership Mr Ya'alon rails against? He sighs. “It’s a matter of alternatives. I wish we had a better alternative but this is the only choice we have.”

He is diplomatic but unmistakably pessimistic about Donald Trump’s hopes of sealing “the ultimate deal” - a peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians. “I hope that he will be ready to listen to our experience and not to try again and again the same mistakes we dealt with in the past.”   

In Hebrew the word “acharai” is a sort of rallying cry, translating as “after me”. For 37 years in his country’s uniform, Moshe Ya'alon cried acharai and Israelis followed him into battle. As he prepares for this new fight, it remains to be seen if the people will follow where he wants to lead them. 

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