Mid East Road Map and Mofaz Role in Sharon Line-up Are Interlinked

A bizarre feature of the Israeli general election held on January 28 was – and still is – the almost obsessive media preoccupation with the losers, chiefly Labor and left-wing Meretz, and virtually no objective studies of the winner. No one asks how Ariel Sharon’s Likud managed to pull off a victory despite his government’s far from flawless performance. No one wants to know what the country can expect from his next administration.
Israeli audiences are treated to an endless stream of interviews with Labor leader Amram Mitzna and his partisans, or Yossi Beilin, who lost his Knesset seat after he jumped from Labor and fetched up at the foot of the Meretz list five minutes before the election. Both chatter at length about their long-term dreams; Mitzna about how he will lead Labor to victory in the next election – or the one after that; Beilin, the committed Oslo agreement loyalist, describes how he and his European backers view the Middle East ten years hence. Likud’s election win, when touched on at all, is treated as a sort of a temporary natural disaster that is best ignored.
So intent were the pundits in dismissively forcing Sharon into the mold of head of a narrowly-based ultra-nationalist-religious administration that they missed telling clues to his next steps. One is his determination to keep Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist National Union out of any government coalition; another, his snub to the ultra-religious Shas. Together, they add up to a distinctly center-of-the road leaning.
Likud campaign managers, on instructions from Sharon, refrained from entering into a pre-election surplus vote distribution deal with Shas, even at the price of losing three to five mandates that would have brought Likud’s win of 38 seats in the 120-member Knesset well past the 40 mark. The prime minister was beckoning to Labor and the No.2 list, Lapid’s anti-religious Shinui (Change), that he was ready to ditch Likud’s traditional alliance with Shas in order to tempt these two secular parties into his national unity government coalition.
In any case, Sharon wants no more truck with the photo-ops with Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, forced on the last half a dozen Israeli prime ministers and the requirement to obtain his nod before every fateful national decision. He is after bigger game, a place in history as the determining voice in where Israel goes next and a role in Washington’s design for a new Middle East.
Labor elder statesman, the ex-foreign minister Shimon Peres will not want to be left out of this great enterprise as he approaches his 80th year, and is quite capable of defying his party’s wishes and joining a Sharon government.
Mofaz Begins to Get Results
The Likud leader will also face opposition in his own party to the rising star of a newcomer, defense minister Shaul Mofaz. debkafile‘s political analysts believe that the fate of Mofaz will determine three key developments:
1. The Sharon government’s posture on the “road map” for a Palestinian settlement.
2. Israel’s post-Saddam role in the Middle East after US military action that could trigger a war with Syria and the Hizballah.
3. Sharon’s successor as Likud leader. The 75-year old veteran is reserving the option of picking the younger man who will replace him when he quits in the not too distant future, 2005 or 2006, after ruling out former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. By edging Netanyahu ever closer to the ultra-right-wing bloc, he reduces the threat posed by his foremost rival of leading a Likud revolt against him.
Sharon’s eye has seemingly fallen on Mofaz – both as favorite in government and potential successor. This choice has aroused ire in the prime minister’s immediate circle, especially his chief of staff Dov Weissglass; it ties in with the tussle taking place under the surface in Jerusalem over the Middle East Quintet’s “road map” to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. The White House has given Israel time to offer its comments until a government is set up. Sharon’s comments will be shaped by the outcome of this contest.
Weissglass belongs to an important political faction which favors the Quintet’s “road map” formula offering the Palestinians independent statehood in three years. This faction hopes the formula would restore the Intifada-tarnished honor of the 1993 Oslo peace framework accords. Its members believe Sharon can be talked into accepting the signature of the “irrelevant” Arafat to a US-sponsored Israel-Palestinian “road map” accord, because he appreciates that without his signature, it will be unacceptable to any Palestinian.
He may also be influenced by his son Omry Sharon, a new Likud Knesset member who is keeping a low profile. Above all, Labor could hardly stay out of a Sharon government that conceded statehood to the Palestinians on European terms.
The most obdurate opponent to the pro-Oslo faction and its goals is Shaul Mofaz.
As defense minister, Mofaz has broken ground carefully skirted by his Labor predecessor, Binyamin Ben Eliezer. Last month, he ordered Israeli forces to enter Gaza City, a town of 300,000 Palestinians, and destroy 100 weapons workshops, after a Qassam rocket barrage descended on locations in southern Israel. Earlier, Mofaz ordered the first Israeli raid of a Palestinian bank – an institution based in al Azariya near Jerusalem, owned by the Jordanian-Palestinian financier Abdul Majid Shuman.The equivalent of $10,000 earmarked for the Hamas’s terrorist campaign was impounded.
The latter action was criticized by the State Department spokesman in Washington.
The prime minister stands up for Mofaz. He needs him in his next government – both because he is getting results that eluded Bin Eliezer in the war against Palestinian terror and as a firm bulwark against a “road map” that would turn the clock back to the Oslo Accords regime.
Peres, on the other hand, would lead Israeli diplomacy towards a blueprint that Arafat could accept. Sharon appears not to have decided between the two contradictory concepts. The battle between them for Sharon’s mind and soul is only just beginning. Winning it would place the defense minister at the forefront of the succession race.

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