Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz believes Ariel Sharon. He has no doubt that the prime minister will keep his public promise and let him stay on as defense minister even after the elections. Mofaz believes there will be a national unity government with Labor; in his opinion, there is no other realistic alternative.

Mofaz is pleased with his move from the office of the chief of staff to the armchair of the defense minister. In his previous job, he devoted most of his time to running the army. Now he is dealing with political matters as well, such as the settlements and the security-related industries, and his angle of vision is different and broader. He took his first steps in civilian life cautiously. He is not seen as an activist defense minister, who initiates ostentatious operations and dictates organizational changes. It's convenient for him to operate in the space between Sharon, his patron and political ally, and Moshe Ya'alon, his former deputy, and his successor in the army. It's hard to find differences between the positions of the three. They are all expecting a war in Iraq, which will bring about a new order in the region and pave the way to an Israeli victory over Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Time is the key element in Mofaz's strategic situation assessment. Not the frantic time schedule of former prime minister Ehud Barak, with its pressing target dates. When he was chief of staff, he once remarked to Barak that it's impossible to solve a 100-year-old conflict in one year. Mofaz believes that in the Middle East, processes are long and do not ripen quickly, even if there is the will and leadership. Even the surprise of the 1973 Yom Kippur War was not the result of an accelerated process, but rather of an Israeli mistake in reading the map.

Now Mofaz is carefully examining the calendar, and he sees at the year's end the upcoming election campaign for U.S. president, which will begin in November. Until then, the Americans have a busy agenda in the region. First of all the attack in Iraq, which will last until the end of spring or the beginning of summer, and which will conclude with an effort to prevent chaos and to stabilize the new regime in Baghdad. Then the agenda will include the problems of North Korea and Iran, the other members of the "axis of evil," and the end of 2003 will already have arrived. The defense minister's conclusion: The United States is the motivating force for change in the region, and it has the will and the capability, but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be of high priority in the coming months. It's doubtful whether later on, during an election year, the U.S. Administration will make an effort to change the regional environment.

Mofaz is not enthusiastic about the U.S. "road map," but neither is he especially worried about it. The Israeli security apparatus believes the existing drafts are American lip service, meant to placate the Europeans and the Arabs on the road to Iraq. He thinks Israel should stick to three principles: a refusal to negotiate under fire, replacement of the Palestinian leadership and progress dictated by actions rather than dates. In any case, the process will be a long one. Confidence between Israel and the Palestinians has been destroyed, and it will take many stages and interim agreements in order to restore it. In the coming year, Mofaz sees a chance for the beginning of a change, but no more than that. The sun will not suddenly break through in a dramatic change of the situation or an agreement.

Until "the day after" arrives, Mofaz is busy preparing for the war in Iraq, and coordinating policy with the Americans. He estimates that the likelihood of an Iraqi attack on Israel is small, but Israel must not show restraint if there is a serious attack, so that its deterrence in the region will not be eroded. He hopes that the restraining forces will operate in Lebanon as well, and that Hezbollah will refrain from heating up the northern border. Otherwise, Israel will take advantage of the opportunity, and will strike out to remove the threat of long-range rockets in southern Lebanon. This will require a coordinated air and land operation, limited in time and in its targets. The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) is capable of achieving that, but Mofaz would prefer to have the Syrians and the Iranians understand the message, and under the impression of an American attack in Iraq, remove Hezbollah from southern Lebanon.