Politics: Shaul Mofaz's plan to secure the premiership

Israel's security needs a leader with military know-how, former army chief tells 'Post.'

mofaz good 224 88  (photo credit: Defense Ministry )
mofaz good 224 88
(photo credit: Defense Ministry )
Channel 1's nightly news led Monday night with a scoop from its diplomatic correspondent, Ayala Hasson, who reported that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had wasted taxpayers' money by paying for business-class tickets on an early flight back from the Paris Conference, instead of flying home on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chartered plane, where there was plenty of room, a few hours later. The report insinuated that Livni took the earlier flight just to avoid being with Olmert, which would have made sense after three days at the conference in which she steered clear of the prime minister more determinedly than Syrian President Bashar Assad. Despite the newsworthiness of a possible scandal that could have threatened Livni's super-clean reputation, none of the three mainstream Hebrew dailies followed up on the report on the following day. The reason might have been that they accepted Livni's explanation that she had important ministry business to attend to back home that required her to return as early as possible. It could have been because of pressure applied from Livni's office to kill the story. Or perhaps it was because the papers had bigger fish to fry ahead of a prisoner swap and the testimony of the key witness against Olmert, Morris Talansky. Whatever the reason, the story's failure to catch on was a major missed opportunity for those in Kadima who do not want to see Livni become the party's chairman in mid-September's primary and perhaps prime minister shortly thereafter. The only thing that would have forced all the papers to follow up on the story was a nasty reaction from her main competition in the Kadima race, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. According to a Dialogue poll published last week, Mofaz trailed Livni in a head-to-head race by six percent (44% to 38%). Just a day earlier, Hasson broke the story that Mofaz had hired American political strategist Arthur Finkelstein to advise his campaign. Finkelstein is known in Israel for his success in getting Binyamin Netanyahu elected prime minister in 1996, and he is notorious worldwide for his emphasis on negative campaigning. Nevertheless, Mofaz decided against responding to the report. Finkelstein's representative in Israel, George Birnbaum, said Mofaz made the right move. "The story didn't warrant a response," Birnbaum said. "The Israeli people know right from wrong. The story spoke for itself. And the prisoner swap was more important." The former IDF chief of General Staff's decision to refrain from firing at his adversary reflects the primary strategy he decided on long before this week's visit of Finkelstein to Israel: to focus only on defense. Not defense in the sense of defending himself from Livni, which he will no doubt have to do. While Livni will not be attacking Mofaz directly, she has been prone to leak negative information about her rivals to an eager and sympathetic press. But defense as in keeping the country safe. By repeatedly stressing his security credentials, Mofaz reminds voters in a positive way who he is and who she is not. "The most fundamental key to Mofaz's victory is his lifetime of experience in security," Birnbaum said. "In three months or so, either Mofaz or Livni will be prime minister. When you're voting for the leader of a country in a difficult region with many enemies, knowledge in security and defense is what matters. At the end of the day, issues of corruption will be behind us, and something will happen that will return the Israeli public's focus to security. That's why Mofaz is in such a good position." Reflecting that advice, Mofaz gave interviews to Israel Radio and Army Radio Monday morning in which he said the word security dozens of times in a matter of minutes. Radio hosts on both stations saw through it and noted that it sounded like Finkelstein was doing the talking for him. But in an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, Mofaz said that he cannot help but talk about the issue that he knows most about and cares most about, and that the people most want to hear about. He said he would gladly talk about his ministry, but that the radio hosts rarely ask him about issues relating to transportation. "If you listen to any interview I have ever given, you will hear the word security many times, so it has nothing to do with the campaign," Mofaz insisted. "Security is the main issue for the country day in and day out, and every leader in the future will have to deal with it. "Military experience, familiarity with the material and the ability to make quick decisions in the middle of the night are important, and without the necessary background, you simply can't do it." The issue of the proverbial "phone call in the middle of the night" arose during the American Democratic presidential race in a commercial for Hillary Clinton's campaign against Barack Obama. That commercial was not enough to persuade voters in America, but it could resonate in Israel where the memories of the Second Lebanon War's failures are still fresh. Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah himself said that he started the war because he wanted to test what he called the "weak leadership" of Israel after Ariel Sharon and Mofaz were replaced in the Prime Minister's Office and Defense Ministry by Olmert and Amir Peretz. Asked what Nasrallah's quote says about Livni, Mofaz suggested that it underlined an important axiom that Israelis must keep in mind. "We have to deter our enemies and transmit messages that we have the ability to prevent our enemies from attacking us and surprising us," he said. "The leadership of Israel in the central places must go to someone with military experience and understanding. Experience has proven that this is very important." Perhaps to reinforce that, Mofaz emphasized that he was the only cabinet minister who did not vote for United Nations Resolution 1701, which Livni negotiated and ended the war without the return of Ehud Goldwasser's and Eldad Regev's bodies. He also wants people to remember that he presented an alternative ending to the war, whereby Israel would invade Lebanon from the North and isolate Hizbullah in the South until it surrendered. Mofaz spoke about Livni's pet issue of corruption in a speech in Netivot on Sunday in an attempt to prove that unlike Livni, who cannot compare to him on security matters, Mofaz can play on Livni's home turf. In the speech that Mofaz's office made a point of distributing, he warned that the corruption scandals broadcast weakness to Israel's enemies. The speech was interpreted as a surprising attack on Olmert, who Mofaz has been careful not to criticize until now out of fear of alienating the prime minister's large bloc in Kadima. But Mofaz said that it was not directly solely at Olmert. He cautioned against reading too much into his words and suggested taking them at face value. He indicated that he would neither embrace Olmert, nor kick him out the door. And as for Livni, he vowed to keep his campaign clean, no matter what his strategists say. "I am not conducting a negative campaign against Tzipi Livni," Mofaz said. "My strategy is to be positive about myself. All the candidates are fitting, and Kadima will have to decide among them. "Why should I run a negative campaign when in the end all the candidates will have to work under me as a team? I have no intention of doing it. I didn't do it in the past, and I don't think I will do it in the future."