Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon made the comments in an interview with the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth, during a U.S. visit marred by claims that top administration officials had pointedly refused to see him.
Weymouth asked Yaalon whether he believed in the “two-state solution.”
“We don’t want to govern them [the Palestinians], but it is not going to be a regular state for many reasons,” he replied, explaining that he meant by this, “Autonomy. It is going to be demilitarized.”
Yaalon noted that demilitarization of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is a Palestinian obligation under the Oslo accords, the agreements reached in the early 1990s that are the foundation of subsequent Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
“It is up to Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas] if he is able or if he wants to demilitarize Gaza,” he said. “Otherwise, we are not going to talk about any final settlement.”
The “two-state policy” at the heart of the administration’s attempts to secure an end to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians envisions “two states, living side by side in peace and security” – with independence, not autonomy, as the goal.
“The only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine,” President Obama said during a March 2013 visit to Jerusalem.
The interview with Yaalon took place during a visit to the U.S. last week. He met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – the two reaffirmed the strong military ties between the two allies – but not with other top administration officials.
Shortly after he left Washington, Israeli media reported that Yaalon had had been denied requests to meet with Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and national security advisor Susan Rice.
“Given some of his comments in the recent past, it should come as no surprise that he was denied some meetings,” Ha’aretz quoted a senior U.S. official as saying.
Yaalon early this year caused a stir when he was quoted as saying Kerry was driven by “messianic fervor” in his efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. (Kerry’s nine-month initiative, aimed at reaching a final status agreement between the two sides, ended in failure last April.)
Then-White House press secretary Jay Carney called the remarks “offensive and inappropriate” and “not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu prodded Yaalon to apologize for the remarks, but two months later the defense minister again upset the administration with comments suggesting Israel would not be able to depend on the U.S. to lead action against Iran’s nuclear program.
In a speech in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, Finance Minister Yair Lapid – a centrist member of Israel’s ruling coalition – commented that “a crisis” existed in Israel-U.S. ties, and said the relationship “must be managed respectfully and responsibly.”
Yaalon is not the only member of the Israeli cabinet to rattle the administration in recent times.
After Kerry earlier this month cited the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among factors driving ISIS-type extremism, Economic Minister Naftali Bennett retorted on his Facebook page, “Even when a British Muslim beheads a British Christian, there will always be those who blame the Jews.” (The ISIS terrorist seen on video beheading American journalists and British aid workers is believed to be British.)
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf denied that Kerry had drawn any link between Israel and the growth of ISIS.
“Either this specific minister did not actually read what the secretary said, or someone is engaging in the politics of distortion here,” she said, adding that “what you say actually matters and not just how someone tries to distort it for their own political purposes.”
Bennett in turn posted an article challenging the notion “that the Israeli-Arab conflict is at the center of the Middle East’s problems.”
“The creation of ISIS had nothing to do with Israel,” he wrote, also listing other examples of Islamic terrorism and turmoil in the Middle East unrelated to Israel, from 9/11 to the Syrian civil war.
“When Israel is portrayed as the source of the region’s problems we need to immediately and forcefully dismiss this dangerous theory,” Bennett said. “Even when we are speaking to the United States – our best friend and strongest ally – we need to tell the truth.”
In his Washington Post interview, Yaalon was also asked about Kerry’s remarks appearing to link the Israeli-Palestinian issue and ISIS recruitment.
“Unfortunately, we find the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dominated by too many misconceptions,” he replied, without mentioning Kerry by name.
“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 [Palestinian leaders’] reluctance to recognize our right to exist as a nation state of the Jewish people,” Yaalon said. “There are many who believe that just having some territorial concessions will conclude it. But I don’t think this is right.”