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That Mysterious 'Third Man'

Having never stopped making political statements, as chief of staff, in the guise of "professional opinions" ("expel Arafat," the Clinton blueprint "is a danger to Israel"), Mofaz became, as defense minister, a type of minimalist of the sounds of silence, a furtive individual who would not be out of place in a Trappist monastery.

We would refuse to believe it if we were told that for years a somewhat mysterious individual whose motivations, mission and wishes are not entirely clear has been ensconced at the center of the places where our fate is decided; a person with burning personal ambitions but who has never presented to the public a genuine political and ideological agenda; a person who was appointed to his job on a personal basis, not as a publicly elected official or as a Knesset member; a person who received almost unlimited freedom of action to implement his conceptions, yet when they collapsed one after the other was not called upon to offer any sort of public or political accounting; a person who rose to the heights of the political world thanks mainly to his ability to select his silences with the same virtuosity as he selects his statements, including those relating to the most urgent public questions.

You would say that no such phenomenon is possible, certainly not in our media-intense era or in the Israeli political climate. But there is such a person. His name is Shaul Mofaz, and he is the defense minister of Israel.

Unlike Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, or even the chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, and even though he is the dominant and most continuous figure in the triumvirate that conceived and implemented the policy of "victory of consciousness" - according to which the realization that Israel cannot be broken will be "seared" into the Palestinians' consciousness - Mofaz has not had to pay any price for the lack of success, not to say the rank failure, of this conception: not in terms of the erosion of his political status, not in the need to reconsider his presuppositions in the light of the deadlock, and not even in being constrained to come up with a constructive solution. He was and remains the "third man" - the horse whisperer, the mystery man, the wizard of elusive behavior.

Having never stopped making political statements, as chief of staff, in the guise of "professional opinions" ("expel Arafat," the Clinton blueprint "is a danger to Israel"), Mofaz became, as defense minister, a type of minimalist of the sounds of silence, a furtive individual who would not be out of place in a Trappist monastery. For three years he pulverized the Palestinian Authority religiously and called for the liquidation of its head, without bothering to explain (or clarify to himself) where all this was leading. And when the PA in fact collapsed, he eulogized the situation, which he himself created, without batting an eyelash: "There is anarchy in all spheres of life ... There is no guiding hand in the territories of the Palestinian Authority ... Arafat has returned to center-stage and is today pulling the strings ... Hamas and Islamic Jihad are becoming stronger vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority." Harsh images, indeed; but who, pray tell, is responsible for the situation?

Although in the past he was dead-set against any unilateral gestures toward the Palestinians, and although he was systematically against the idea of the separation fence, he suddenly underwent a metamorphosis on these key issues too, immediately after his political patron, Ariel Sharon. Suddenly he not only agreed to the idea of "disengagement," he even expressed "confidence and hope" in it. And did so, once more, without an explanations or grounds. Why? What happened? What's suddenly so good about the very thing he objected to just two weeks ago? Not a week passed and we learned that he is in favor of moving the Gaza Strip settlements to the West Bank and having the army remain in Gush Katif, the Israeli bloc of settlements in the Gaza Strip. Then we were informed that he actually favors moving the settlements to the Negev and maybe pulling out the army, too. Go figure it out.

In fact, a strange cloud of opacity and mystery has shrouded the activity of the "Defense Ministry" throughout Mofaz's tenure. Want to know how many illegal settler outposts there are? The defense minister won't provide the list even to MKs. Interested in knowing what underlay another "targeted assassination" of 15 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, despite the respite in terrorist attacks? Well, it's none of your business. Do you have a desire to know who the mysterious nocturnal elves are - known as "elements in the Defense Ministry" - who are assisting both the "legal" and the "illegal" outposts, from the massive beefing up of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip to the "deepening" of the settlements and outposts in the West Bank? Nurture that desire. Would you care to know who is actually behind the labyrinthine, annexationist route of the "separation fence," which has entangled Israel even more than all the failed war conceptions? Ask the prime minister, the chief of staff or the deputy defense minister. But not the defense minister.

Somehow, Mofaz emerges even from interviews as mysterious and opportunistic as he was beforehand, when he does not incarnate, as in a self-parody, an arid macho type, like a character in the television satire "Wonderful Country." Just two weeks ago, in an interview to the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, he refused to comment on the disengagement plan; on the other hand, he admitted that he was expanding settlements, and referred to the areas that will remain in Palestinian hands scornfully as "areas of the so-called Palestinian state." It would not be possible to reach an agreement of any kind until 2020, if at all. But what are another 20 or 30 more years of warfare for a "man's man"?

Asked about Sharon's legal entanglements, he declared, "I don't want to get into that." And, in fact, what does he need that for? Still, it's possible that Mofaz is displaying a type of leadership and perhaps even exemplary personal behavior. Maybe he's trying to hint to us, in his evasively elusive way, that the country would be in far better shape if it conducted itself like he does.