The only information leaked from the Israeli security cabinet’s deliberations on Wednesday, May 29, was the sharp reprimand prime minister Ariel Sharon administered to army chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz, for arguing once again that deporting Yasser Arafat was the only way to cut off Palestinian terror at source.
Sharon advised Mofaz to keep his nose out of policy-making as long as he is a serving officer.
This may be one of the general’s last government briefings. Next month, he retires at the end of a four-year stint – two of them spent fighting Palestinian violence.
The prime minister is hardly in a position to preach. In his long years as a serving officer, Sharon never held back on his political views, offering them in the most forceful terms.
The leak, however, was symptomatic of an unspoken concern. Sharon and his partner in government, the Labor leader and defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, are feeling a potential draught not yet blowing from the direction of Shaul Mofaz, who as a civilian is widely expected to throw his hat in the political ring.
The Sharon-Ben Eliezer alliance has propelled the two men towards the center, away from their respective milieus of right-leaning Likud right and leftish Labor. Sharon has defied his party by approving the rise of a Palestinian state, while Ben Eliezer stands against his party’s support for Yasser Arafat as the only partner in peace negotiations. Having moved this close, the two men are seen as planning to carve out of their parties a moderate, center-right political front, with support from the Orthodox Shas and Untied Torah parties. Most pundits see such a grouping as designed to outflank their leading challengers – the two former prime ministers, Binyamin Netanyahu of Likud and Shimon Peres of Labor.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s political analysts believe the two veteran politicians are taking a longer view. Neither Sharon nor Ben Eliezer feel immediately threatened by either of those rivals attempting a comeback. Looking into the future, however, they envision a vigorous new political bloc led by two younger men: Mofaz, 54, and another retired general, Effi Eitam, 42, the new leader of the National Religious Party and member of Sharon’s security cabinet.
Born in Iran, Mofaz and family immigrated to Israel in 1957. With a degree in business administration, he climbed through the ranks of the armed forces, taking part on the way in the Entebbe operation and attending the US Marines command and staff college in Wantico, Virginia. Eitam, demobbed as a brigadier general, was born on a kibbutz. His army record includes the command of Israeli forces in Lebanon and of the elite Givati Brigade. While Mofaz has no known political background, Eitam never made a secret of his right wing nationalist leanings, even in uniform.
Both the chief of staff and the ex-general agree with the assessment shared by Israel’s intelligence experts that Washington’s master plan for sidelining Yasser Arafat as a figurehead will fall flat as a stratagem for defeating terror. Mofaz felt he had to speak up at the security cabinet, therefore, even at the risk of drawing Sharon’s wrath. More than ever, he is convinced that there is no other way but to banish the Palestinian leader to a spot as far away as possible and preferably under guard. As long as Arafat remains in the country and in power, Mofaz with Israeli intelligence expects his powerful patrons, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Syrian leader Bashar Assad, Iran’s spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah and al Qaeda operatives in the Middle East, to prevent the Americans from removing Arafat from control over the Palestinian security services and terror mechanisms.
America’s failure will leave Israel in bleak straits. Sharon is now at the peak of his powers. However, having hitched his star to the Bush administration, he is expected by Mofaz, Eitam and others, to take a serious tumble when US plans go awry.
As Palestinian suicide attacks pile up and the national economy staggers into stagflation, Sharon’s unparalleled popularity is beginning to fray. The National Religious Party has declined in recent years to only five seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament, but under Eitam’s dynamic leadership, it is poised to leap out of its moderate religious box to scoop up blocks of disenchanted Likud and other voters, who want the Palestinian menace eliminated root and branch now, starting with Arafat, and normal life restored.
To make the national grade, Eitam needs a non-religious, nationally acceptable partner, who stands head and shoulders above petty party politics and is untouched by the widespread taint of financial and political scandal. Mofaz may fit the bill. He appears to be modest, restrained and consistent. Through every phase of the war with the Palestinians, he quietly but doggedly called for an all-out confrontation with Palestinian terrorists and Arafat’s regime, which he terms “a terrorist administration”.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s political experts estimate that if Mofaz and Eitam can get together on a platform, a new political bloc may be in place by the end of summer and up and running for the next general election, some time in 2003.