A "prime ministers' forum" was held as part of the unity government of 1984-1990: Shimon Peres, first as prime minister, later as vice-prime minister and foreign (or finance minister); Yitzhak Shamir, first as former and future prime minister and then as incumbent; and Yitzhak Rabin, as former prime minister and incumbent defense minister. All the important decisions of the time were made, while not always unanimously, through the consultations of that threesome: the retreat into south Lebanon, the Ahmed Jibril prisoner exchange swap, the Jonathan Pollard affair, the Kav 300 affair [in which Shin Bet operatives were blamed for killing terrorists following an attack on the 300 bus near Ashkelon]; Iran-Contras, the cancellation of the Lavi jet fighter project, ties with Jordan (in the London agreement), and dealing with the first Intifada.
The deal reached between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima chief Shaul Mofaz on Monday broke the record for cynical agreements, one which had held since the August 1939 Molotov-Ribberntrop agreement between Russia and Germany. It allows Netanyahu to change his name to Kombinyamin [Netanyahu's first name combined with the word "Kombina," which in Israel is used to refer to an underhanded deal], and reminds us that the last time Mofaz was anywhere near the concept "reliability" it was as an IDF soldier during the raid to rescue hijacked airline passengers in Entebbe.
But, the deal also reinstates the prime ministers' forum, now again a Triumvirate: an incumbent (Netanyahu), a former (Ehud Barak), and one that shall never be (Mofaz). Barak, like Rabin who maintained the defense portfolio under both Shamir and Peres, achieved the goal set by his campaign ad release earlier this week: to remain defense minister. At the beginning of the week, when he was the only one joining close Netanyahu family members in going to the grave of Netanyahu's father Benzion, he effectively took on the role of the prime minister's brother. And, unlike the issue-filled 1980s, this time there's only one topic on the diplomatic-security agenda: Iran.
This is, of course, when taking into account that the reelection of U.S. President Barack Obama this November could – and as far as Netanyahu is concerned, might – bring the Palestinian issue back to center stage. A senior Israeli official who frequents the White House quite a bit was under the impression that the Palestinian issue was the only emotional aberration in Obama's otherwise cool and cerebral mode of thought – he empathizes with Palestinian distress. But Netanyahu has that covered, as Mofaz will be entrusted with contact with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas until the elections in November 2012; first as the father of the revolutionary "Mofaz program," which has been collecting dusk, and later as he takes on the role of foreign minister, following Avigdor Lieberman's forced resignation from the cabinet and as empty portfolios need to be manned.
Mofaz will fly out to meet U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and maybe even Obama will give him some quality time. He'll get some respect, and in return will take on at least some of the burden of responsibility, with Netanyahu able to delay any move that could interrupt him within Likud.
As for Iran, Mofaz has thus far distanced himself from the reckless adventurism attributed to Barak and Netanyahu. However, that was a long time ago, about 24 hours, and in the meantime he lost the "o" and one "p" from "opposition," and has ended up with "position." His relative advantage, as the only Iranian-born Israeli leader, he already used in previous years in speaking with Iranians on Israeli Radio's Farsi station. Then, he warned Tehran of the consequences of an attack on Israel, and promised, among other things, to spare the civilian population when Israel goes on a counter strike; he also supported economic sanctions. But that was during previous, less belligerent cabinets.
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In Mofaz's case, there's a point in the matter, although not the one Itzik was going for – the army man's habit to salute his superiors. When he was chief of staff, he obeyed his superiors – more so in the case of former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon than to Netanyahu, Barak, and former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer – and when he was defense minister he obeyed Sharon. Now, as a partner in the innermost discussions, he can be noted as the minority vote opposing the other two in all the dramatic decisions yet to be made. If the adventure works, Mofaz will be there; if it fails, well, he warned and tried his utmost to prevent it.
The addition of Mofaz, along with that of former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter as head of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, gives Netanyahu and Barak a protective vest against any political opposition of the move against Iran. Pushing back the elections also prevents the retiring of ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, leaders of those resisting the Netanyahu-Barak move in unofficial Forum of Eight discussions. Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who moved away from the defense portfolio and who effectively lost his place as the PM's acting substitute to Mofaz, joined, after preliminary hesitations, to Meridor and Begin, and now could ratchet up his objections. But, with Kadima in the government, the internal battle has been decided, even if only in points.
It's a necessary but insufficient condition: Obama still objects. The U.S. Defense Secretary said again in a TV interview over the last weekend that Netanyahu and Barak received clear messages from Netanyahu and himself on that issue. The bizarre idea of timing the attack for September-October, both as giving a heads-up to the Iranian aerial defenses as well as an attempt to provoke Obama on the eve of the elections, is now officially off the agenda with the delay of elections of Israel and Mofaz's inclusion.
But that's only an expansion of the possible timetable. Those opposing a preemptive operation have one immediate cause for relief and a cause for concern in the long run of anywhere between two months and a year, with Spring 2013 as a target date. Supporters of the move, on the other hand, can claim that strengthening the government and the implied threat that suggests, could bring about a better negotiation stance for the world powers in their nuclear talks with Iran, which renew in two weeks in Baghdad.
The Mofaz-Netanyahu pact's point of brilliance probably borrows from the infamous "Bibi-tours" affair: signing up to the government on a free-seat basis. Yossi Peled and Matan Vilnai are out; Ruhama Avraham – Kadima's most powerful politician – along with another one from the long list of politicians who supported Mofaz in exchange for a ministerial position, are in. But just as importantly, the Knesset's State Control Committee is losing its chairman, Ronny Bar-On. When State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss hands in a tough report on the Carmel fire disaster, or on the decision making which led to Israel's raid of the Gaza-bound aid flotilla, or on any other issue, there won't be a political official demanding accountability from Netanyahu.
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