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Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's warning against Yasser Arafat's intervention in the elections is ironic: Arafat supported Mofaz's appointment as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff. That happened not very long ago, in the Spring of 1998, when Arafat's associates implored Israeli acquaintances to help Mofaz snare the appointment.

It was not so much Mofaz's military aptitude that so impressed General Arafat, "the only world military leader who has never lost a battle," as he himself puts it; instead, Arafat was motivated by political calculations. The Palestinian Authority chairman wanted to strengthen the hand of Mofaz's main booster, then defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who was considered the most moderate part of a ruling triumvirate that also included former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign minister at the time, Ariel Sharon.

Four-and-a-half years have gone by since then, along with two prime ministers and two (soon to be three) election campaigns, and Arafat remains the only constant in Israeli politics.

Mordechai was convicted on counts of sexual abuse and his role as the Likud's defense minister has been taken over by Mofaz, who was described by a major general at the General Staff as "Yitzhak Mordechai without the criminal dimension."

Just as Mordechai quarreled with Netanyahu and opposed him, Mofaz, just three weeks after his inclusion in the government, is preparing for a future showdown with Netanyahu (and also Ehud Olmert) for the Likud's top spot in a post-Sharon era. This time around, Arafat has a role in Israel's elections as a negative image, as the one who shook Netanyahu's hand at the Wye Plantation meetings, and as the one who is giving Amram Mitzna a suffocating hug.

During the direct prime ministerial battle between Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, Arafat preferred the latter, who came across in the world as a peace rejectionist, and during whose term outside support for the Palestinians reached a peak. Israel would have been embroiled in the violent conflict of the Fall of 2000 and thereafter - the stand-off that, in the absence of elections, would have started in May 1999, the end of the interim period under the original Oslo process timetable - under circumstances of diplomatic disadvantage, had Netanyahu still been prime minister.

After he abused Barak, resumed violence, lost Bill Clinton and got George Bush, Arafat's status vis-a-vis Sharon, who is not essentially different from Netanyahu, is inferior.

Mitzna's appearance in the summer as a candidate for Labor's top spot, and his current selection for the post, resuscitated Arafat, who has, since November 2001, been grounded in Ramallah (apart from a one-day outing in Jenin). The siege imposed on Arafat by Sharon, the Bush administration and, with hesitation, members of an alternative Palestinian leadership, has fissured.

But Arafat has a flawed understanding of Israel's public, which is too shrewd and sober to believe in the future espoused by Sharon, yet also unprepared to accept the present endorsed by Mitzna. All told, Israel's public evinces a dialectic approach that aspires to compromise - more concessions than Netanyahu and Sharon would accept, but not one-sided concessions that would be liable to perpetuate the dispute rather than ending it (Mitzna's platform stirs precisely this concern).

It would be wrong to infer that the affinity between Mitzna's positions and Bush's platform means that Washington expects him to defeat Sharon. Washington prefers stability, meaning a government based on a wide public base, rather than a sharp break and rapid collapse. Stability, Washington believes, will promote Bush's agenda.

Mitzna and Netanyahu are helping Sharon position himself in the center of the political spectrum and come across as a moderate who will include both rivals in his government. Bush will ride toward his own election campaign in 2004 atop Sharon; then, with Saddam and Arafat archival memories, he will steer Israel toward early elections in 2005, with new leaderships in its two major parties.