JERUSALEM — The Bush administration, while focused intensely on its “grand plan” for remaking the Middle East, is “indifferent to the situation” between Israel and the Palestinians and is unlikely to re-engage until after the November elections, according to Israel’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz.
Speaking to the Forward in an exclusive interview this week, Mofaz said the war in Iraq and the U.S. war against terrorism had set off a “domino effect,” resulting in “very conclusive” changes in places such as Libya. But the changes are “still in progress” in Syria, which continues to sponsor terrorism and may be housing Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, he said. As for the Israeli-Palestinian arena, the changes haven’t reached here at all, making progress unlikely in the coming months.
“If the Americans were not so preoccupied with their grand plan, they would have been more involved with the Palestinian question,” said Mofaz, who is considered one of Prime Minister Sharon’s closest Cabinet allies. “They would have pushed for something. But right now they are indifferent to the situation here. They say ‘road map, road map,’ but they don’t give much odds to [Palestinian prime minister] Abu Ala, and they are letting time pass.”
“I think that during the upcoming year, 2004, nothing dramatic will happen,” Mofaz said. “But the moment the gong goes off in November and the United States has its next president, whether it is George Bush or someone else, there is a chance that something will happen here, that things will begin to change in 2005.” (The full text of the interview appears online at the Forward’s Web site, www.forward.com.)
Mofaz was dismissive of the recent call by Syrian President Bashar Assad to reopen peace talks, saying it was intended “to escape American pressure, and I believe that Bashar Assad will find himself under even greater pressure in the future.”
“I believe the United States will soon add Syria to the ‘Axis of Evil,’” Mofaz said. “I believe that some of the remaining nonconventional capabilities of Iraq are either in Syria, Lebanon or perhaps even in Iran. Saddam had ample time to prepare, and it is no secret that during the war in Iraq the Syrians assisted the Iraqis.”
Mofaz’s skeptical view of the Syrian initiative puts him at odds with some of his top generals, who describe the initiative as “serious” and urge a positive Israeli response. But Mofaz does appear to be in sync with his own boss, Sharon, who in Knesset testimony this week said Israel would negotiate with Syria only if it ends support for terrorism.
A popular, pragmatic hard-liner, Mofaz is considered a top contender to succeed Sharon, though he has never publicly stated such ambitions. A former army chief of staff, he was catapulted into the Defense Ministry almost directly after doffing his uniform in 2002. He has never run for office and does not have the grass-roots following enjoyed by his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. Still, polls show him easily outpacing other contenders, such as Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom.
Unlike his rivals, Mofaz’s political future is dependent on Sharon’s. If Sharon is forced to step down in midterm as a result of the bribery, campaign-finance and other scandals swirling around him, the Knesset probably would opt to form a new government rather than dissolve itself and call elections. Mofaz then would be barred from succeeding Sharon, since only a sitting Knesset member would be eligible. The Likud leadership most likely would be handed to Netanyahu.
That scenario moved closer to reality this week, after state prosecutors decided formally to indict a Tel Aviv businessman, David Appel, on charges of trying to bribe Sharon and others, including Olmert, in a late-1990s real estate scheme. The indictment depicts Sharon, then foreign minister, as a willing participant in the scheme, involving an unsuccessful attempt to build a resort on a Greek island. According to the charges, Appel allegedly paid Sharon’s son Gilad large sums in return for the elder Sharon pressing the Greek government on development rights.
Under Israeli law, prosecutors can charge the person who gives a bribe without charging the recipient. But the indictment of Appel, coming after a rough week in which a former aide released damaging tapes of conversations with Sharon and his close aides, greatly increased pressure on the prime minister. In a poll published last week in the daily Yediot Aharonot, 67% of Israelis said Sharon knew about illegal campaign fundraising. Nearly half, 46%, said he should resign.
Mofaz is still a loyal lieutenant, at least for now. In his conversation with the Forward, which took place before the indictment was made public, he appeared less than enthusiastic about Sharon’s plan for “unilateral disengagement,” but his criticism was veiled. He maintained that Israel had removed “most” of the illegal outposts that are a sore point between Washington and Jerusalem, but he made it clear that he felt some of them should stay. And he defended the West Bank security fence, insisting it was effectively stopping suicide bombers — yet he admitted that construction had been delayed “because we didn’t want the fence in the first place.”
Mofaz said Israel is “committed to the ‘road map,’” referring to President Bush’s beleaguered peace plan, and “we are making an effort to live up to our commitments, including the ‘unauthorized outposts’ — as if this were the true obstacle to the whole process.”
He said Israel and the United States had agreed, as part of Bush’s road map, on the removal of some 90 settlement outposts established after March 2001. All but 27 have been removed, he said. Although American diplomats and Israeli opposition leaders dispute that figure, Mofaz was dismissive of the critics. “The American ambassador was here, with his lists, but people don’t differentiate between settlements and the unauthorized outposts,” he said.
Moreover, he said, some outposts have been made legal, complicating their removal. “Some of the outposts are sitting on state lands, and they conform to the map of Israel’s national security interests,” he said. “You can say, ‘What reason is there to remove them? On the contrary, they should be strengthened.’”
Despite the complications, he said, Israel has “streamlined the decision-making process” and authorized the army’s Central Command to begin removal of nine outposts within the next week.
“But we have to remember that it will be a difficult situation, and that we are doing this, placing this burden on the political and military establishments, at a time when the Palestinians are doing nothing — suicide-bombing attacks are continuing, the Palestinian Authority is not functioning, the civil functions are falling into chaos and anarchy.”
Mofaz said that when he first presented Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan to Defense Ministry aides, he spelled out four prerequisites: that it increases security; that it wins American support; that it doesn’t preclude a return to the road map, and “finally, and this is critical, that we have a map of our national security interests,” so that “we don’t do things we will regret later.”
The Israeli public is ready for such a plan, Mofaz said, “because the current, frozen situation gives us the worst of all worlds: The terror continues, there is no diplomatic progress, and you don’t give any hope to the citizens of Israel.”
“Things are moving toward the center on both sides of the political fence,” he said. “If there was a referendum on a solution, or an Israeli proposal by which a Palestinian state or entity would be established — even against the Palestinians’ will — and we would delineate our borders and which settlement blocs we keep, I believe that most of the public would support it.”
Because of this growing centrism, he said, Sharon’s government enjoys broad public support and “is a very stable government, unless something dramatic happens.”
With reporting from Ha’aretz and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.