"We were already hearing rumors about friends who were killed or taken captive," he remembers. "And I was hearing about what was happening to the Airborne Nahal battalion that I previously served in, which had to withdraw on foot from the Golan. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was talking in terms of the Third Temple being destroyed, and that feeling went down the ranks."
But he didn't have much time to think about it. On October 15, when the IDF gained the momentum at a terrible cost, the 55th Paratroopers Brigade was about to cross the Suez Canal.
Ya'alon made a promise to himself that night that if he returned alive from this crossing, he would reenlist in the IDF and take the officers' training course—which, as history now tells it, brought him all the way from the canal to the IDF chief's office.
But at the end of that war, something in Ya'alon also broke. "I returned from that war and, for the first time, experienced a crisis of faith in the leadership. I realized that we can't count on anyone; that if we were caught by surprise like that, someone didn't do his job right.
"Since then, it has been part of my DNA. That is why I'm constantly worried by (Prime Minister) Netanyahu's worldviews today: no criticism, surrounding himself by yes men. God forbid anyone should express another view, be they public servants, the media, the courts, etc. I'm anxious when I see this tyrannical thought, and it takes me back to these years of euphoria and hubris after the Six-Day War, which led us to chaos."
The past few months have been particularly hectic for the 66-year-old Ya'alon. The door of the offices he is renting on Tel Aviv's HaBarzel Street boasts the sign "Alternative Leadership NGO," but those who attend his living room political meetings and other gatherings up and down the country have no doubt: When he's talking about an alternative leadership, he's talking about his own leadership.
Ya'alon doesn't rule out joining forces with other major political players—and he did get quite a few offers—but at the moment, this is his time.
"I decided to go on my own independent path," he tells Yedioth Ahronoth in a special interview for Independence Day. "I do see cooperation in the future. After all, eventually you need to form a coalition. Perhaps even form these bonds before the elections. My working assumption is that the elections will be held in the coming year. So I'm talking to everyone and intentionally leaving my options open. After all, we're not there yet. But right now I plan on taking the pitch on my own, show my strength."
One poll predicts you four seats in the Knesset. Another poll has you not even passing the threshold.
"I don't look at that. After all, I haven't established a party yet. I conduct living room discussions, meet with different people, get appreciation, but people are justifiably waiting for me to decide what political move I'm going to make. It's irresponsible to even include me in polls yet. Perhaps the intention behind this is to convince me to join an existing party. This kind of pressure does exist. I talked to a lot of people, and I found that we can find common ground even on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which has always been at the heart of the division."
What are you hearing from people?
"The majority realize a final-status agreement is not going to happen anytime soon. I heard this from quite a few party leaders, including those considered leftists in the Labor party—like (Isaac) Herzog. On the other hand, I also meet people from the religious-Zionist sector who have grown tired of Bayit Yehudi's nationalistic ways."
What about politicians from the Likud party?
"Quite a few come to me from there as well, despite the fact there's a custom in the Likud party that you don't undermine the leader. But quite a few Likudniks approach me and tell me they're taking nausea pills to survive there. I can understand them. I needed those pills too over the last year."
"Because I think what we have today is not leadership. It contaminates the word 'leadership.' The public is being incited against and distracted by other threats. It could be an external threat, it could be Arabs, it could be an internal threat like leftists, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi people. Netanyahu is deceiving the people by rallying them around hatred. It's the politics of hatred."
'The opposite truth'
"In my last few months as a minister, I couldn't sleep. And it wasn't because of Iran," Ya'alon confesses. "It was because of the internal issues, which got me into clashes with others: The corruption, the media, the discourse of hate, the status of the courts. The soldier (Elor Azaria), an issue that came up near the end (of my time as minister), could very well have been the result of all of the other conflicts.
"It was hard for me, because I thought leadership should unite. On election day, when I heard (Netanyahu's warning) that 'Arabs are going to the polls in droves,' I was horrified. I know Israel's Arab citizens, and they are undergoing a process of Israelization. I told myself: This is not a comment made by a leader, this is a comment made by a politico. It sounds like (current Defense Minister Avigdor) Lieberman, who emboldens Hanin Zoabi, and Zoabi emboldens him with a discourse of hate. But it's not the kind of language befitting the Likud party."
You didn't come out against this at the time.
"I could only talk to Benny Begin about this, because there are those who understand and think like me in the Likud party, but they don't dare speak out. Fear rules there. There are young MKs who joined the Likud—some of them excellent parliamentarians—who all of a sudden take on radical positions so they would be reelected, and so they won't be perceived as 'leftists.' All of a sudden, Benny Begin and I are considered 'leftists.' Something bad is happening in the Likud party.
"So the term started, and I noticed the prime minister was not setting any limits. In party meetings, when people attacked my insistence on maintaining the rule of law in Judea and Samaria, no one defended me. The only one who defended me was Benny Begin. So I realized I was becoming more and more alone.
"At the time, I was dealing with issues like the demolition of two structures in Beit El, which were built illegally on private land, and there was no decisive statement made by the leadership. I said, 'If this is against the law, let's demolish.' I found myself on the other side of the divide. And here I ask, again, where is the prime minister to put an end to this? Is he going to let these guys—(Bezalel) Smotrich and (Oren) Hazan—play their game, while I have to deal with this alone?
"The Likud is a national movement, but I saw how the prime minister was crossing the line between 'national' and 'nationalistic.' Part of it likely also comes from the prime minister's political motives, from looking for allies in Bayit Yehudi. After all, anything (Bayit Yehudi leader) Bennett says, the prime minister is quick to agree. But Bennett too has a tail that's wagging the dog—like Smotrich and others.
So all of a sudden, Smotrich gets to pull the government to the right. And the prime minister doesn't put an end to it. And MKs who want to get reelected make comments accordingly. All of a sudden, attacking the Arabs is good, attacking the Supreme Court is good, and attacking the media is good."
So why didn't you resign immediately, at the beginning of the term, when you realized this was the situation?
"I told myself: As long as I'm the defense minister, who can still protect the IDF, I don't want to think about who would replace me and how that would look like. And as long as I can implement what I believed in as part of my responsibility in Judea and Samaria, I would swallow the bitter pill. And there were bitter pills to swallow."
On a personal level, when did you start feeling a change in Netanyahu's attitude towards you?
Is there something about the submarines that we don't know?
"I cannot talk about it, because it's still under investigation, but there are definitely things the public doesn't know. Not just about the submarines, but about the other naval vessels. It's the entire thing. I have a lot to say about it, and things will become clear in the future. There is no doubt this issue was part of what came between me and Netanyahu, but even before this investigation there were serious disagreements between us. For example, we clashed over his demand to shut down Army Radio. I put my foot down, but it kept coming up in our meetings.
"His demand was unequivocal: He told me 'close the station,' and I said 'no.' He is obsessed with the media. Look at what they're doing to the media today: They're either corrupting it, or enslaving it by turning it into a propaganda machine, or delegitimizing it. I told him a few times: Do you not have enough influence over the media? You have your own newspaper, there's more of a variety of voices being represented in all stations now than there used to be. This is an obsession.
"All of a sudden, anyone who is not 'with us' is a 'leftist.' There's an agenda behind the chosen language and the one leading this agenda is the prime minister in an effort to hurt what he dubs 'the elite' that, in his view, won't allow him to govern—the media, the courts, and public servants. And I'm not with him, so I too became a 'leftist.'
"By the way, the same thing happened to military officers. He sees them as an elite that is in his way. That is why I had a very serious argument with him about the Locker Commission report (which examined the defense budget and recommended extensive cuts). The Locker report touched on a lot of things, but I thought it was targeting career officers. To that I said: Over my dead body. On the outside, (Netanyahu) always talks 'security, security, security.' But the opposite is true. A leader should support the defense establishment, not view it as a political threat. But I guess that is beyond his abilities."
What did you think about MKs David Bitan and Miki Zohar's behavior towards bereaved families ?
"Unfortunately, there is a process of radicalization and moral deterioration, which is manifested in very violent political discourse that crosses all the lines. That incident was only an example of that. There is a reason why commanders say that the hardest moments in their military service is when they have to walk into the home of a bereaved family. Those were also the hardest moments of my life. The moral debt that we owe these families is unimaginable. That is why when I witnessed that tongue-lashing I felt great shame, including over the fact they may have thought this could help them politically."
Its fake news
The chasm between Ya'alon and the prime minister was filling with flammable fumes, and all it took to set it off was a match. Or a gunshot.
On March 24, 2016, that shot was fired by Sgt. Elor Azaria. Ya'alon was the defense minister at the time, and immediately denounced the act as "extremely grave and completely in contradiction with the IDF's values."
But rather quickly Ya'alon found himself facing many ministers, among them the prime minister, who did not quite share his opinion.
Do you think you spoke too soon?
"I don't regret anything I said. Let's put things in order here: the incident happened Thursday morning. It was obvious to everyone in the field that it's an unusual incident, abnormal. An investigation was then done by the Kfir Brigade commander, and it became clear that it was a deed that should never have been done, outside the law, opposed to our values.
"We got the investigation's results at 1:30pm, and by then the video (of the incident) was already out, and we understood the danger of escalation in the territories following its release. Why? Because the Palestinians are telling a blood libel against us—that we execute without trial—and the video serves as proof. For that reason, we agreed that we must denounce the act, and so should the prime minister. And so, in the afternoon, we did just that; the prime minister, me and the IDF chief of staff.
"By evening, I had already realized that this was going to be politicized. Slowly, I started getting information that (journalist and former MK) Sharon Gal went to the (Azaria) family's home, along with many other people who offered to represent their son in court, and the family fell for it. They didn't understand back then, and I'm not sure they even understand today, that they were being used for a political spin.
"On Friday, Bennett saw the political potential (in the incident) and wrote a post on Facebook, asking why the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff are not backing the soldier. If he really wanted details of what happened there, he could have just asked me for them.
"On Monday I got to the Knesset and didn't even think about commenting on the subject. But people started criticizing: why are we not backing the hero soldier? Echoing the words 'hero soldier' again and again. So who was going to defend the military's integrity at that point? Should I—of all people—have kept silent?
"I went up on the podium, and said 'ladies and gentlemen, there was a military investigation, and I can't get into its details, but this soldier is not a hero, it’s a soldier who transgressed. What do you want to accomplish by continuing to act in this way? Do you want the military to become desensitized? Leave it to the court to decide on this.'
"Well, that didn't help much, of course. Then, when his remand was extended by a week, Lieberman, along with (Moshe) Feiglin and Oren Hazan, started stating 'he's innocent, he's innocent,' and causing a commotion.
"And then I, as the defense minister, had to defend the military court. I said 'ladies and gentlemen, the one who determines the rules of engagement is the chief of staff, and not the mobs.' And that's it. I made no further comments on the matter.
"In the meantime, I found out that there's an entire campaign, backed by a lot of money. And then they started posting things against me on Facebook, and I started getting calls from friends, saying 'listen, some journalists called looking for something shady in your past about killing captives.' I realized then that someone recruited a team and was running a campaign, doing public relations, using investigative journalists. And then a post about me was actually published, saying I was once present in the execution of a Syrian captive when I was a battalion commander. In short, there was a great wave of fake news."
Where you ever present at an execution of a captive?
What did you learn about the public from this whole affair?
"That you can deceive it—not just part of the public, most of it—for a long time. Incitement is easiest to digest. It’s a cynical political exploitation of the human need for safety, using hate of Arabs and leftists. They put the soldier against the terrorist. Of course the public is going to back the soldier. But it's not really about the soldier against the terrorist; it's about the soldier against the IDF's values, against the orders of his commanders, from the chief of staff to his platoon commander. But it's easy to incite to nationality and racism. That is the danger here, and that's where we need true leadership, which does not exist today.
"Even the prime minister flipped and took a stance in support of the soldier when he called his family. The political leadership confused all of the soldiers. Because what actually happened here? Soldiers kept serving after the incident—in Hebron, Ramallah, Jenin… On the one hand, all of their commanders told them 'he's no hero, he's a soldier who transgressed.' On the other hand, the political leadership has been making a hero out of him. Do you realize what kind of crisis this creates? Even the chief of staff had to comment on it, because the political leadership was going against the army's values. Netanyahu changed his stance based on Facebook 'likes' and polls. He needs to lead according to his moral compass and not according to popular opinion, especially not according to bad opinions."
How did this affair affect your relationship with Netanyahu?
"In the end, it was another incident in which both of us were on opposite sides. After that, there came a moment when I realized—and this was just before I resigned—that he was trying to offer my position to others. Before it was offered to Lieberman, he offered it to Herzog, who didn't want it. I was told that (Herzog) told Netanyahu, 'you have an excellent defense minister, I want to be the foreign minister.' That's when I realized that he was trying to get rid of me. That was the moment when I realized that I hit a dead end.
"In general, Netanyahu holds this belief that anyone who might become a political threat—off with his head. When I realized that Lieberman was already in talks for the position, I decided to resign."
Ya'alon made his famous resignation speech about 18 months ago. "It is intolerable to me that we should be divided because of a cynical hunger for power," he said at the time, in what reminded many of his famous goodbye speech from his position as the IDF chief of staff, when he said: "People ask me why I walk with tall boots in the Kirya (the IDF headquarters), and I tell them it's because of all the snakes."
What do you have to say about the allegations against Netanyahu?
"It's sickening. There is a level of corruption here that became the norm. Greed and hedonism is blinding people. I was there; I know what the temptations are. You walk among world leaders, see people who are extremely wealthy. It doesn’t really appeal to me, but there are apparently people who are taken by it.
"In my opinion, Netanyahu should resign. People in a civilized nation resign when affairs like these are made public, even if the investigation hasn't finished yet and an indictment hasn't been filed. I think that even with only the things that have been revealed to the public, even without the details still under investigation, he should resign and not wait for the investigation to finish or for the attorney general to make a decision."
Not for 'likes'
As if all of this wasn't enough, after his resignation, the state comptroller's report on Operation Protective Edge was released—and Ya'alon did not come out unscathed. The report pointed to him, alongside Netanyahu and former IDF chief Benny Gantz, as the ones who were responsible for the fact the tunnel threat wasn't recognized and handled properly.
"They look at the operation only through the lens of the tunnels and the decisions made about them. As if there wasn't an entire military campaign surrounding it. There are a lot of elements here being ignored," says Ya'alon.
The report noted that discussions at the Security Cabinet about the subject "did not fully reflect the severity of the threat of the tunnels, as it was known to the prime minister and the defense establishment." What is your take on it?
"Of course I presented the subject to the cabinet, but there are sometimes things that you know but not aware of. When the Israeli public sees Hamas militants come out of the ground, they become aware of the threat. But was I never in tunnels before? Did we not train for them?
"What is the point of creating this illusion that it is only a matter of making a decision about it and the problem would be solved? The Americans have the same problem with Mexico, and they haven't managed to solve it either.
"Besides, the tunnels pose no existential threat. A more substantial threat is rockets being fired from the strip, and the rockets and missiles being fired by Hezbollah. The whole tunnels affair—it was made into a demonic plot. I understand the psychology behind it. But this is exactly where a responsible leadership is needed, one that doesn't fan the flames. But I knew that those who politicized the cabinet will politicize this. And so I told the state comptroller: if we failed, there should be a government-appointed inquiry commission investigating this."
So what are your conclusions from the operation?
"That in general, military action should only be used as a last resort. War is terrible. Unfortunately for me, I've been through many of them, lost friends, even saw some fall right beside me. I understand the price of war, and even in Protective Edge I thought that we could prevent escalation."
"Before Operation Protective Edge, Hamas found itself in a dire financial situation, with no money for the public sector—for teachers, doctors or even clerks. I saw that and tried to come up with a solution so that innocent people could make a living. I managed to formulate such a plan with the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East, Robert Serry, with the help of Qatar that was willing to pay the salaries. Unfortunately, Lieberman, who was the foreign minister at the time, torpedoed the plan out of his own personal considerations. He wanted to make Serry a persona non grata, and Netanyahu supported his stance.
"It was obvious that this would increase tensions in the strip, and that it could lead to an explosion. So this, along with other issues, raised tensions and things escalated. Hamas did not plan for a war in 2014, and neither did we—we were both dragged into it. That's the main lesson this war should teach us."
What happened at the security cabinet during the operation?
"There were ministers who saw it as a political opportunity. They built the narrative about the tunnel threat, and selectively leaked from the meetings. In this cabinet, all discussions are heated, and the problem is that anyone who is more impassioned is supposedly more patriotic.
"You don’t get Facebook 'likes' when you provide the Palestinians with water and electricity. You get 'likes' for slogans: 'We will destroy Hamas and take control of the strip.' But reality is more complex, and that's what managing a responsible and measured policy is about.
"I spoke at the time about snakes in the Kirya, but in the cabinet, it's not just snakes, it's cobras. And in the Knesset it's vipers."
Now, Ya'alon is independent, going up and down the country from one meeting to another, believing that even in the age of Facebook 'likes,' there is no replacing face-to-face conversations. Everything he has been doing appears like he is establishing a new political party, but he hasn't labelled it as such yet.
Why aren't you announcing your new political party?
"Because there are no elections yet, and there are people who want to run with me but are currently working in other positions, so they don't want to reveal themselves yet. In any case, I already know who's going to be the party's number two."
Is it true that you are trying to recruit several former senior army generals?
"I keep in touch with them all—with Ashkenazi, Gantz, Yadlin, and others. Once one of them decides that he is jumping into the cold political waters, I believe we'll have more practical political talks."
What is your party's agenda going to be?
"Defense-wise, it will be hawkish; values-wise, it will be Jewish democratic liberal."
What about the peace process?
"There is still much work to be done, and we need to strive for peace, but at the same time keep a sober view that in this tough neighborhood, it is unlikely to happen in the near future. That doesn't mean we should be disheartened. We can have stability, and we have achieved that on some level, but we will continue doing so with measured and responsible policies and not with slogans and fiery speeches. There seems to be a competition between Bennett, Lieberman and Galant on who is more fiery."
In light of everything you said about Netanyahu, could this party work with him?
"I don't want to come out with any declarations on that. At the moment, there is a mutual separation between us."
It has been 50 years since the Six-Day War. In retrospect, was it good for us?
"It was good because it decreased the threats to national security. However, the complacency and this feeling of power that followed it were the cause of what happened in the Yom Kipur War. There are people who miss the days before the Six-Day War because we felt like a society always under threat that needs to come together and fight. I think that's true today, as well."
With Israel celebrating its 69th Independence Day, are you optimistic about the future of the country?
"Yes, and my optimism stems from the ability to compare what we have today and what we had in the time of my grandparents, who were murdered in the Holocaust. I'm convinced that before their deaths, they did not believe that, in a few years, an independent Jewish state will rise and will have its own army, and that their grandson will be its chief of staff. We were able, in a wise and clever way, with knowledge, spirit and care, to protect our national Jewish home, and develop it.
"And in celebration of Independence Day, I want to say this: Israel remains steadfast despite the challenges it faces. We should divert our efforts and recourses inwards to deal with our internal challenges, which bother me more than the external ones."