Mofaz grabs attention in U.S. with hopes of peace talks

President Obama drops by a meeting between National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz of Israel, third from left, in the White House, June 21, 2012.

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON — With his recent return to the top ranks of Israel’s government, Shaul Mofaz is receiving plenty of attention in high places for emphasizing renewed talk of peace with the Palestinians. It’s yet another high point in a relatively short political career — after 35 years of military service — that is making Mofaz a heavyweight on his country’s political scene. 

In fact, the emphasis by Israel’s new deputy prime minister on restarting talks appears to be what gained him a 35-minute impromptu chat with President Obama during his visit to Washington last week.

The question is whether the former Israeli military chief of staff and defense minister has the ear of the person whose opinion matters most from the Israeli perspective: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The joining of Mofaz to his government provides a stable platform to proceed toward the two-state solution,” Gilad Sher, a former top negotiator with the Palestinians, told JTA. “But it all depends on what’s happening within one person’s mind, and that person is our prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu.”

Yet, he added, “[With Mofaz] there is a better chance for this coalition to at least try to move towards a direction that would be more specifically oriented to a two-state solution. It is strong, it is broad and there’s no threat to its coherence.”

The peace talks have been moribund since October 2010, when the Palestinians walked out because Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month unilateral freeze on West Bank settlement building.

Mofaz, at the outset of his Washington tour last week, made clear that reviving the effort was his priority in the new 96-seat national unity government, Israel’s broadest ever.

“Time is not in favor of the State of Israel and it is not in favor of the Palestinians either,” he said at a June 19 address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  “We cannot continue to rule another nation; we have to find a solution.”

Underscoring the new tone he brought to the government, Mofaz said that such talks were at least as urgent as those aimed at keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon a sharp contrast with the emphasis that Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, have placed on Iran in their dealings with the Obama administration.

Mofaz met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then national security adviser Tom Donilon during his trip. It was at the June 21 meeting with Donilon that Mofaz was given an idea of how seriously his ideas were being taken. Minutes after the meeting started, Obama walked in and took over. Mofaz, speaking to reporters later in the day, insisted he had no idea the president would participate.

During his talk, Mofaz made a bold prediction: Israeli and Palestinian leaders would convene soon to restart the peace process.

Obama was more than receptive, Mofaz later suggested to Israeli reporters.Mofaz said he believed that Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leaders would meet “within months.” But pressed by reporters as to whether he knew contacts were underway toward setting up such a meeting, he acknowledged, “I don’t know.”

Barak in an interview with the Washington Post confirmed that Mofaz’s entry into the government presented an opportunity to revive the talks, and that he and Netanyahu were committed to “try and do it.” The problem, Barak said, was still the Palestinian Authority and its unilateral efforts to achieve statehood recogntion in the absence of talks.

Still, Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy defense minister who has known Mofaz since their days as commandos, said he did not believe Netanyahu would listen to his new colleague.

 “I’m afraid [Netanyahu] won’t because of the large number of registered hard-line, right-wing Likud members from the settlements,” Sneh said. “In order to be reelected in the primaries, he should be nice with them.”

Sneh nonetheless said that Mofaz was a strong addition to the government, even though they served in the past in opposing parties — Sneh in Labor and Mofaz in Likud.

Mofaz’s ascension to the military chief of staff position in 1998 was historic. The Iran native was the first military chief from among the hundreds of thousands of Jews who emigrated from Middle East lands after Israel’s independence; they are often known as Mizrahi or Sephardi Jews. (Moshe Levy, the first Mizrahi chief of staff, who served from 1983 to 1987, was born in prestate Tel Aviv.)

Mofaz is blunt but soft-spoken. He distinguishes himself from his political colleagues by patiently waiting for an interlocutor to finish speaking, and then directly answering the question without segueing to his preferred issue.

As chief of staff, Mofaz managed the tough response to the second intifada, ordering raids and home demolitions. When he retired, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made him defense minister in 2002. Three years later, when Sharon left the rightist Likud Party to establish the more centrist Kadima, he considered it critical to bring Mofaz with him to establish credibility with hawks and the Mizrahi community.

Mofaz joined, and Netanyahu more than once attempted to lure him back to the Likud. Leading Kadima’s peace-skeptic right wing, Mofaz had uncomfortable, competitive relationships with Sharon’s successors as party leader, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. (He convincingly defeated Livni in internal party elections in March.)

In 2009, however, having been defeated by Livni for the party leadership in the wake of Olmert’s departure to face corruption charges, Mofaz came up with a peace plan that was far-reaching in two respects: It proposed an interim Palestinian state in place of incremental talks he said were dooming the peace process, and he did not count out the inclusion of Hamas on the Palestinian side.

Mofaz insists that all parties must accept the international community’s conditions for participation in the peace talks. They know that Hamas rejects the conditions, including recognizing Israel and renouncing terrorism. The difference was that Mofaz would not count out Hamas changing its posture, while Netanyahu insists the movement is irredeemable and must be crushed.

Mofaz holds to the same peace plan today, and it is his quiet optimism on this and other issues that has helped earn him a serious hearing in Washington. Like Netanyahu and Barak, he insists that it is critical that Iran be kept from acquiring nuclear weapons. Unlike them, he holds out hope for intensified sanctions (although not talks) and insists that the United States and the West must take the lead should it come to a military strike.

Whether Mofaz’s posture becomes preeminent within Israel’s government remains to be seen. For certain, however, he is a man whose presence is being taken seriously.