(photo credit: AP)
In the autumn of 2000 my reserve unit was among the first called up on emergency order to deal with the outbreak of the second intifada. At the end of our brief training period at the Beit Guvrin base, we were paid a visit by then-chief of General Staff Shaul Mofaz.
After speaking with us, Mofaz took questions from the soldiers. One member of my unit stood up and, in a voice shot through with anger and frustration, spoke about how his employer had threatened him with dismissal if he did not make more of an effort to get out of miluim.
Mofaz at first listened sympathetically and said he would press the government to crack down on this troubling phenomenon. But when the soldier went on to complain about how easy it was for less-conscientious comrades to shirk their duty by applying for the psychiatric deferments given too readily by the IDF, a note of impatient irritation crept into the general's response. Rather than respond with the sympathy one might have expected - be it sincere or not - he left me with the distinct impression that he was simply blowing this soldier off, despite the legitimacy of his point.
That incident has subsequently colored my view of Mofaz - not as an IDF commander, a position he seemed to fill more than adequately, the capstone of a storied military career for which he deserves all due credit. But that day I saw tendencies on display that to my mind made him not particularly suited for the give-and-take necessary in politics on almost any level - an impression that has only been reinforced since then.
MOFAZ'S WILLINGNESS to be parachuted by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon into the defense minister's post in 2002 only three months after leaving the army certainly violated the spirit - if not the letter - of the law mandating a half-year "cooling off" period for IDF commanders before allowing them to run for office, and it did keep him from running on the Likud list just a few months later.
His impatience with the normative political process was further demonstrated in 2006, when he at first declined to follow his mentor Sharon into Kadima, and then made a last-minute leap to the new party only when it became clear he had no chance in the race for the Likud leadership.
Now we have his behavior since losing a very tight race against Tzipi Livni in the Kadima primary. Shortly before that vote, responding to rumors that the foreign minister was weighing whether to remain in the party if she lost, Mofaz reportedly commented: "Livni is not a loyal person... Kadima is holding democratic elections for the first time, and Knesset members will refuse to accept the results?"
Yet less than a day after his defeat - and hours after promising to do whatever he could to help her and the party - it was Mofaz who announced he was taking a "time-out" and resigning from his post as transportation minister, undermining the effort by Kadima to form a new government even while some of his supporters are challenging the primary results.
IT WOULD be easy to view Mofaz's maneuvering both in the past week and during his entire post-army career as the kind of cynical tactics one expects from politicians primarily concerned with advancing their own interests. But I don't doubt for a minute that Mofaz sincerely believes he is acting in the best interests of the country, that he is an indispensable man at this moment in the nation's history, and that such petty matters as political parties - be it the Likud or Kadima - or proper governmental procedure pall beside the need for the kind of leadership he can provide.
That outlook is all too typical of the many top IDF commanders or security establishment officials who enter government at the highest levels without first having to serve any kind of political apprenticeship, and are immediately hailed by some in the public and media as the latest messiah to redeem either a particular party or the entire nation.
Mofaz provides only the most recent example of what happens when such a figure ultimately learns that his sense of political entitlement doesn't correspond with the demands of a democratic system in which advancement is neither as orderly, or absolute, as the military world he left behind.
In narrowly defeating Mofaz for the Kadima leadership and possibly the prime minister's seat, Tzipi Livni promised that her victory would represent a break from "politics as usual." That campaign rhetoric was most widely interpreted as her banking on her reputation as the "Mrs. Clean" of Israeli politics, especially in comparison with the disgraced Ehud Olmert. But in choosing Livni over Mofaz, in selecting a female candidate whose few years in the Mossad provide her with only the scantest of resumes in security affairs in comparison with a highly regarded former chief of General Staff, Kadima members did break with an unhealthy political precedent that, although it has nothing to do with corruption per se, is still a symptom of some of the core weaknesses in the way this society chooses to govern itself.
Livni has committed herself to pursuing a centrist peace-and-security agenda that is Kadima's only tangible ideological substance, and that surely must be the primary task ahead of her if she succeeds in forming a new government either through coalition negotiations or new elections.
But her real opportunity to redeem her party will come only if she can truly demonstrate a continuing capacity for breaking with politics as usual, both in her own personal behavior as a party leader and possibly prime minister and in her ability to push for broader governmental reform.
That Livni is clearly not an Ehud Olmert, or a Shaul Mofaz, is reason enough for Kadima voters to hail her victory as at least partial redemption for the ballots cast for the party in the general election two years ago. Now, though, Livni must prove she has the capability to leave her own mark on Israeli politics, or soon enough she will find herself joining Mofaz on his time-out from it.