Analysis: Mr. Security and Mr. Politics

Why did Mofaz toss his reputation as a dependable ex-general we can count on in times of danger?

Mofaz 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Mofaz 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz has been grilled by the local press over the past few days for saying in an interview that should Iran continue developing its nuclear program, Israel will attack it. Some commentators even went as far as accusing him of putting his political primary race, which hasn't even been announced yet, above Israel's strategic interests, a very naughty thing to do. Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of general staff and defense minister, has for years been in charge of Israel's strategic dialogue with the United States. This posting was given to him not just because he has the security credentials necessary to understand the issues at hand, but also to sweeten the bitter pill he was given when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert replaced him with Labor Party's then-chairman Amir Peretz at the helm of the Defense Ministry. That move was seen as purely political, and Olmert paid the price of having an inexperienced defense minister at his side when he chose to embark on a war with Hizbullah in 2006. Since then, Mofaz has been doing his job quietly and studiously, with very little fanfare or media leaks. He has been at the heart of the most sensitive security issues the Jewish state faces for years, building a reputation as a solid Mr. Security, a dependable ex-general we can count on in times of danger. So why did he throw it all away? Mofaz is trying to position himself as Israel's Mr. Security ahead of the Kadima leadership battle. His main opponent in the party is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who - while considered popular amongst the wider Israeli public - remains very much an enigma to the population. She does not inspire confidence, warmth or loyalty, and her popularity amongst the electorate is based solely on the fact that she is considered a "clean" politician, with no corruption investigations currently opened her against her, quite a feat in today's Knesset. The polls show Livni out in front for the Kadima leadership, but not by much. Mofaz would want to reduce her lead even more, and what better way than to put himself out there as the security minded candidate of the whole bunch. That's really his only calling card. His time at the Transportation Ministry has not turned him into a superstar and now Mofaz is sensing his moment. For more of Amir Mizroch's stories, see his personal blog at: Will his comments help Mofaz gain control of Kadima? Unlikely, as he will be painted by his opponents as irresponsible, as someone who should have known better. Any time Israeli politicians talk about hitting Iran, or Israel's purported nuclear weapons, they are castigated. Mofaz was clearly trying to set himself apart from Livni, a woman, an unknown. He was also perhaps trying to outmaneuver Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who, while himself a serious candidate for the tile of Mr. Security after serving in the secret service for over 30 years, is a political novice. Mofaz figures that Israelis are hearkening to the days of the ultimate Mr. Security, Ariel Sharon. With all the talk of centrifuges and cascades and genocide, Mofaz is trying to position himself as a responsible, tough Mr. Security who can lead the country in the time of its most serious challenge since independence in 1948. Had Mofaz made the comments in an interview on security issues to a security reporter instead of a political reporter, he may have been more careful, and taken more seriously. The fact that he interviewed with a political correspondent paints the entire story in a different shade of Code Red. This is the second time in two weeks that Livni has been forced to state her position on serious issues. The first when Defense Minister Ehud Barak [whose office has already slammed Mofaz's comments] handed Olmert and Kadima an ultimatum to replace the PM as head of the party or Labor will work to hasten new elections. In the wake of the Talansky corruption probe against Olmert, Livni, the strongest candidate to replace Olmert, was forced to act, which she did, but, characteristically, without serious intent or consequence. Instead of calling for Olmert to resign, she said that "every country needed to be true to its moral compass." The second time Livni's actions were dictated by others was Mofaz's comments. By positioning himself as the man Israelis should most trust with their continued existence [remember, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed to wipe Israel off the map], Mofaz challenged Livni to stake out a role she could cast herself in at the nation's helm. Again, and perhaps responsibly this time, Livni didn't fall into the trap. Instead, she repeated the mantra that, when it comes to Iran, "all options are on the table." It remains to be seen what attributes Livni will choose to highlight in herself when the time for campaigning for the Kadima leadership arrives. Will "being clean" suffice? Have Mofaz's comments damaged Israel's strategic situation regarding Iran? Doubtful. The feeling here, both within the political-security establishment, and within the larger public, is that Israel will eventually have to act to stop Iran's nuclear program because nobody else will. Sanctions are not working [Mofaz said as much], Iran will not stop, and George W. Bush is unlikely to embark on a major military adventure this far into the end of his presidency. Furthermore, the publication several months ago of the US National Intelligence Estimate, which posits, incorrectly according to Israeli sources, that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, makes it very unlikely that this president, or the next one, will be able to muster the political support needed for a war with Iran. And war it will be. Iran's nuclear installations are numerous, widespread and well-defended. Any attack on them will take sustained effort by a large military force. Israeli defense planners took heart this weekend when Howard Berman, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was in favor of lifting the ban on sales of the F22 "Raptor" stealth fighter-bomber. A weapon like this will be necessary if anyone wants to get through Iran's Russian-built radar installations and reach Natanz, Bushehr, Isfahan and other sites. The thinking is that once these planes take out Iranian radar, hundreds of other, less sophisticated fighter-bombers can swoop in and bomb the targets with a much better chance of success. Mofaz was just giving voice to Israeli fears that the Jewish state will be left on its own to defend itself against a genocidal tyrant within arms reach of nuclear weapons. Almost every Israeli you talk to knows that. The government has been preparing the nation for that eventuality for years, aided quite admirably by Ahmadinejad's constant talk of genocide. What Mofaz said was not new in itself, but does go against government policy of putting Israel at the forefront of efforts to stop Iran, policy set by Ariel Sharon, and reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt's dictum: Speak softly and carry a big stick. Now the question Israelis will have to ask themselves is whether to place their trust in a man who says what's on his mind because he thinks it's the right thing to do for the country, or in a man who speaks his mind because it may help him further his career. In short, a choice between Mr. Security and Mr. Politics. For more of Amir Mizroch's stories, see his personal blog at: