Israeli Defense Minister 'We Can in No Way Tolerate an Iran with Nuclear Weapons'

In an interview, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon explains why he considers the nuclear deal with Iran to be an historical error. He also addresses recent crimes committed by extremist Israelis.
Von Ronen Bergman und Holger Stark

Moshe Yaalon, 65, has now served for more than two years as Israel's defense minister. He previously served as deputy prime minister under Benjamin Netanyahu. Earlier, Yaalon had a career in the military, where he led an elite commando unit and later became the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Yaalon is a member of the right-wing of the Likud party. In his office, he has a picture of Israeli fighter jets flying over Auschwitz with the promise, "never again."

He recently sat down with SPIEGEL to discuss his opposition to the deal with Tehran.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, you recently ordered your soldiers to destroy a handful of settlers' houses in the West Bank. Israel's radical right attacked you afterward and called you a traitor. How does it feel to be attacked by ultra-right wing Jews?

Yaalon: The situation in the West Bank, in Judea and Samaria, is dividing the Israeli people and our political parties. But Israel is a democracy and, at the end of the day, all of us must obey the law. When illegal activities occur in the West Bank, we must use every law enforcement capability available to us in order to confront it.

SPIEGEL: The violence of radical settlers is shaking the country. On July 31, an 18-month-old Palestinian baby was killed in an arson attack in the village of Duma in the West Bank. Would you call this an act of Jewish terrorism?

Yaalon: We should arrest the terrorists -- in this case, the Jewish terrorists. Of course we consider the murder of a young baby to be a terror attack. Our whole country strongly condemns this. We already have too many terrorists to deal with in our region -- whether they are jihadists, nationalists or whatever. There is no justification whatsoever for a Jewish terror attack. Terrorists are terrorists.

SPIEGEL: What are the next steps you plan to take in combating crimes like this?

Yaalon: This isn't only a challenge to the victims of these terrorist attacks. It threatens our entire society. In this instance, we use more drastic measures, like administrative orders. Legally, we have the opportunity to arrest someone in a situation in which we know who exactly the terrorist is, but we can't use the evidence against him in court. (Editor's note: Israel's administrative detention allows for arrest without charges and for suspects to be held for indefinite periods in order to prevent further crimes and when presenting the evidence in court might jeopardize sources or the modus operandi of the intelligence services.)

SPIEGEL: You are talking about an old order back from the time of the British occupation which has never been used against Jews.

Yaalon: We've used such steps in certain cases against Arab terrorists, and we have now decided in the cabinet to use such drastic elements even against Jewish terrorists.

SPIEGEL: Almost at the same time, on July 30, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed several young teenagers who were participating in a gay pride parade, including Shira Banki, 16, who died of her wounds. The man had previously been convicted for stabbing attendees of a 2005 gay pride parade and had only recently been released from prison. How divided has Israel's society become?

Yaalon: We should avoid generalizing issues like these very extreme elements who murdered the baby in Duma or the stabbings. We shouldn't just point the finger at the ultra-Orthodox population in Israel. Such extreme elements like these murders should be dealt with using all legal means available and by putting the murderers in jail. But both cases show that this is not just a question of law enforcement, but also a challenge for education. I am a strong believer in education. If a human being is ready to commit murder -- whether we're talking about terrorists seeking to murder us or an ultra-Orthodox killing a young girl because of an ideology -- then we're talking about a failure of the education system. We should spend more on education.

SPIEGEL: As a reaction to the dismantling of two illegal houses, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the construction of 300 new settler homes. Don't decisions like that further fuel the conflict?

Yaalon: In our view, the West Bank is not occupied territory. I can't accept what is considered common knowledge: The Arabs have the right to live everywhere in the land of Israel -- and I don't deny it. They have the right to live in the Galilee, in Haifa, in Jaffa, in Jerusalem, in Jenin, in Nablus. But it has also become common knowledge that the Jews are not allowed to live in certain territories. This is a denial of our human rights. When we talk about the conciliation between us and the Arabs, Mahmoud Abbas …

SPIEGEL: … the president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank …

Yaalon: … Abbas is demanding to get a piece of land without Jews ("judenrein"). Isn't this ethnic cleansing? How can this be acceptable? In the end, we will have to settle the conflict with territorial compromise, but I don't believe that uprooting people is a solution. That's why we believe that we have the right to settle the land. We are bound to some restrictions that were part of the 2003 agreement (the Roadmap for Peace). As a government, we are committed to not constructing new settlements, but we are allowed to have what we call natural development in the current settlements to make normal life there possible. And this is what we do.

SPIEGEL: So you destroy two houses and allow 300 new ones to be built? What your government views as a natural expansion of the existing settlements is seen by the world as tricks played by the Israeli government to expand them. Your policy is creating greater pressure and is leading an increasing number of groups to boycott Israel.

Yaalon: We have to fight back on the issue of boycotts of Israel. Unfortunately, attitudes against Israel are influenced by manipulation and propaganda. There are too many misconceptions. One of them is the settlements issue.

SPIEGEL: You once claimed that US Secretary of State John Kerry was driven by a "misplaced obsession and messianic fervor" because he tried to broker a peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel. Would you still describe him in that way today?

Yaalon: Did you hear me saying it?

SPIEGEL: You said it behind closed doors, but it was reported in the news.

Yaalon: Our relationship with the United States is a strategic and very deep one, but we do have disputes on certain things -- the Iranian issue or proposals regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example. Even among friends, there are disputes, and we have the open channels to share these disputes. My good relationship with the United States goes well beyond my ties with Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

SPIEGEL: So John Kerry is not messianic and obsessive?

Yaalon: I don't want to talk about something that no one has heard me saying.

SPIEGEL: But would you say that the US effort to achieve reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians was unrealistic?

Yaalon: We didn't close the doors regarding the political process. The door was closed by Mahmoud Abbas, in February 2014 in Paris, and in March 2014 during Abbas' visit to the White House. We are ready to sit at the table to discuss all issues with the Palestinians, all issues. Negotiations must not just deal with the issue of the occupied territories, an issue in which Israel has just to give and the Palestinians just have to get. A simple question is whether they are ready to recognize our right to exist as a nation-state of the Jewish people in an agreement. Was there a political answer from the moderate Mahmoud Abbas? Never. And the second question is, are you ready to consider any territorial compromise agreed by the two of us as a finality of claims and an end of the conflict? I still haven't gotten a clear answer because they are still keeping the refugee issue, which they call the "right of return," and other elements open for the future. I don't believe we are going to reach a final settlement anytime in the near future. I would say it is not going to happen in my lifetime.

SPIEGEL: We wish you not only a long life, but also more optimism.

Yaalon: As modern people, we have become solutionists and now-ists. We want food now, peace now, democracy now, everything now. It works in McDonald's with taking the food from the refrigerator and putting it in the microwave, but this is not the way that geopolitical issues can be managed.

SPIEGEL: Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently said that the nuclear deal with Iran would send the Israelis to the "door of the oven" again. Do you agree with that kind of drastic language?

Yaalon: We have quite a dispute with the White House regarding the deal with Iran. It's bad enough without resorting to such expressions.

SPIEGEL: You are among the harshest critics of the deal. Why?

Yaalon: From the very beginning, we supported a strategy which might have put the Iranian regime in a very clear dilemma: to have a nuclear bomb or to survive as a regime. This strategy consists of political isolation of the regime and crippling economic sanctions, which actually started to work seriously in 2012. We believe that putting this economic pressure upon this regime might generate an internal resistance to it. The final element of the strategy is a credible military option: If you don't obey the United Nations resolution, then you are going to be attacked. In 2013, Supreme Leader Ali Khameini met this kind of dilemma. He decided to survive and to reengage with the "Great Satan" America. He called it drinking from the poison glass.

SPIEGEL: If it was the sanctions that ultimately brought Iran to the negotiating table, then wasn't it a positive thing to use this opportunity?

Yaalon: The way the negotiations had been managed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany was a historic mistake. Now we have a deal which is going to allow Iran to become a military nuclear threshold state. In a decade or so, they'll be allowed to enrich uranium without any restrictions. In a couple of months, when the deal is implemented, Iran will have access to $100 billion (in frozen funds), and in addition to having money to rehabilitate the economy, they will also have money to "export the revolution." The Iranians will provide financial support to organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as well as the Houthis in Yemen and the Shiites in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. They are going to intensify their activities and improve their terror infrastructure. And what about the missiles that can reach all of Israel and parts of Europe? They're not part of the deal.

SPIEGEL: But as a consequence of the deal, it's also possible Iran may play a constructive role in the fight against the Islamic State.

Yaalon: That might be the only constructive role regarding Iran. In all other conflicts in the region, you will find the Iranians on the wrong side -- whether it is in Syria, in Yemen or in the Gaza Strip. It's an apocalyptic, messianic regime with the aim of creating a Shiite empire.

SPIEGEL: By your assessment, were the Western negotiators naïve or were the Iranians just clever?

Yaalon: I believe that many historic researchers will deal with it. My gut feeling is that political leaders in the West prefer to postpone the problem, for the next day, for the next year, for the next term. There have been certain points in history in which people believed that reconciliation might bring a solution, but in the end we paid a high price. This is the case with Iran now.

SPIEGEL: But the deal could also increase chances of a process of political reforms in Tehran.

Yaalon: Without pressure, this regime knows very well how to oppress those elements. They still use cranes to hang people in the marketplaces. There is not going to be any Iranian Spring. And you can forget about McDonald's in Tehran.

SPIEGEL: Do you expect that a nuclear arms race will happen in the region?

Yaalon: Following the deal with Iran, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey claim they are going to do it. But we hope that the international community will deal with that as well.

SPIEGEL: Do you consider the countries that negotiated the deal to be responsible for the consequences it will have?

Yaalon: Sure. If they are responsible for the deal, they will also have to consider and take into account its outcome.

SPIEGEL: If your army or military chiefs were to inform you next week or next year that Iran has violated the terms of the deal and reactivated its military nuclear program, would you recommend air strikes against the nuclear facilities?

Yaalon: In such a case, we will have to discuss it. At the end, it is very clear. One way or another, the Iranian military nuclear ambitions should be stopped. We can in no way tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons. We prefer for this to be done through a deal or sanctions, but in the end, Israel should be able to defend itself.

SPIEGEL: So will we see further deaths of Iranian nuclear scientists through attacks or malware compromising Iranian computer networks?

Yaalon: We should be ready to defend ourselves. I'm not responsible for the lives of Iranian scientists.