Shaul Mofaz and the Two Banners

After the successful rescue of the cab driver Eliyahu Gurel, the defense minister said in private that "positive things are happening on the Palestinian side that we should not let slip through our fingers." With the prime minister, the public security minister, the chief of staff and the chief of police out of the country, Mofaz was the highest man on the totem pole at several stages of the decision-making process in the Gurel affair. The phone calls he got from the Palestinian side, full of concern and willingness to help, and clearly anxious not to call off the game, left him impressed.

Talks with the Palestinians on the subject of the road map have changed Mofaz. From a total skeptic, he has become an optimistic skeptic. As the person who ran the war against the Al-Aqsa Intifada with an iron fist, leaving a trail of destruction and thousands of dead and wounded, he is now talking about "positive signs" coming out of the Palestinian camp. About a drastic decline in incitement and the number of bombing alerts, and a real desire on the part of the new leadership not to go back to the intifada. Dahlan has said so publicly: "From our perspective, the intifada is over."

In an interview with a reporter from NBC, Mofaz cited two reasons for his optimism: American involvement and the fact that both sides have reached the conclusion that military victory is impossible. He sees Dahlan as a key to the success of the road map. In the middle of a meeting with Sharon and his ministers, Sharon's secretary handed him a note. "What is it? Another terrorist attack?" asked one of the ministers. "It's not an attack," said Dahlan, quick as a wink.

"The coming weeks will be critical," says Mofaz. "We know that the cease-fire gives the terror organizations time to stock up on arms, and that having two hubs of leadership has led to a situation in which Arafat can make Abu Mazen's life miserable. But we also recognize that the Palestinians need time."

Things may have changed for the better, Mofaz argues, but we need to keep our eyes wide open. At the same time, he never tires of saying, we have to give the current initiative a chance - because if it fails, reverting to what we had before the cease-fire is going to be mighty hard.

Although Abu Mazen has not changed the goal of a Palestinian state, but only the way of getting there, Mofaz believes that "we have to give the Palestinians a sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel. We have to ease up in ways that will allow them to feel the change in atmosphere. For example, finding a better solution with regard to prisoner release, which is so important to them."

At their meeting last week at the Erez checkpoint, Dahlan complained about the small number of prisoners Israel was prepared to set free. "Tell Abu Mazen to meet with the prime minister," suggested Mofaz, dropping a hint with the subtlety of a sledgehammer that he wouldn't leave with empty hands. "You tell him," answered Dahlan and handed him a cell phone with Abu Mazen on the other end of the line. And that's how the meeting with Sharon was arranged last week.

The matter of prisoner release no longer needs government approval, so a five-member committee headed by Sharon and Mofaz was assigned to reach a decision. "Anything that's within our purview is worth doing," says Mofaz. "Relaxing restrictions, handing over responsibility for more cities, increasing the quota of laborers, dismantling outposts."

Dahlan's nickname for Mofaz is "Mr. Results" because Mofaz is always saying that everything depends on results. Dahlan doesn't like the pressure on Abu Mazen to disarm Hamas. "Give us time," he says. "Let me deal with it in my way. After all, it's the results that count, right?"

"If it's so easy, why didn't you get rid of Hamas?" Dahlan burst out angrily at one of their meetings. Despite Mofaz's optimism, he believes that the first stage will take several months.

Meanwhile, the economy is on fire. Back in 1971, Moshe Dayan said it was impossible to wave the banners of defense and social reform at one and the same time. Thirty-two years later, Mofaz says that the economy is a derivative of the defense situation, which is why an agreement is in our best interest.

Vicki Knafo and her admirers can walk from one side of the country to the other, but the bottom line, if you go by our ex-chief of staff, who is ripening into a politician with national leadership ambitions, is that the defense situation will determine whether the socio-economic banner can be unfurled.