Can Mofaz influence Netanyahu?

With his recent return to the top ranks of Israel’s government, Shaul Mofaz is receiving plenty of attention in high places for emphasizing renewed talk of peace with the Palestinians. It’s yet another high point in a relatively short political career — after 35 years of military service — that is making Mofaz a heavyweight on his country’s political scene.

In fact, the emphasis by Israel’s new deputy prime minister on restarting talks appears to be what gained him a 35-minute impromptu chat with President Barack Obama during his visit to Washington last week.

The question is whether the former Israeli military chief of staff and defense minister has the ear of the person whose opinion matters most from the Israeli perspective: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The joining of Mofaz to his government provides a stable platform to proceed toward the two-state solution,” Gilad Sher, a former top negotiator with the Palestinians, said in an interview. “But it all depends on what’s happening within one person’s mind, and that person is our prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu.”

The peace talks have been moribund since October 2010, when the Palestinians walked out because Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month unilateral freeze on West Bank settlement building.

Mofaz, at the outset of his Washington tour last week, made clear that reviving the effort was his priority in the new 96-seat national unity government, Israel’s broadest ever.

“Time is not in favor of the State of Israel, and it is not in favor of the Palestinians either,” he said at a June 19 address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We cannot continue to rule another nation; we have to find a solution.”

Underscoring the new tone he brought to the government, Mofaz said such talks were at least as urgent as those aimed at keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon — a sharp contrast with the emphasis that Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, have placed on Iran in their dealings with the Obama administration.

Mofaz met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then national security adviser Tom Donilon during his trip. It was at the June 21 meeting with Donilon that Mofaz was given an idea of how seriously his ideas were being taken. Minutes after the meeting started, Obama walked in and took over.

Mofaz was prepared for the eventuality, and during his talk made a bold prediction: Israeli and Palestinian leaders would convene soon to restart the peace process.

Obama was more than receptive, Mofaz later suggested to Israeli reporters.

“The Americans understand the greatness of the hour of the opportunity that was created” by the national unity government, he said. Obama, he told reporters, told Mofaz that “I accept your assessments of the Middle East.”

Mofaz said he believed that Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders would meet “within months.”

Barak, in an interview with the Washington Post, confirmed that Mofaz’s entry into the government presented an opportunity to revive the talks, and that he and Netanyahu were committed to “try and do it.” The problem, Barak said, was still the PA and its unilateral efforts to achieve statehood recognition in the absence of talks.

Still, Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy defense minister who has known Mofaz since their days as commandos, said he did not believe Netanyahu would listen to his new colleague.

“I’m afraid [Netanyahu] won’t because of the large number of registered hard-line, right-wing Likud members from the settlements,” Sneh said. “In order to be re-elected in the primaries, he should be nice with them.”

Sneh nonetheless said that Mofaz was a strong addition to the government, even though they served in the past in opposing parties — Sneh in Labor and Mofaz in Likud.

“He brings to the Cabinet three important things: experience, ability and a serious attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Sneh said.

Mofaz’s ascension to the military chief of staff position in 1998 was historic. The Iran native was the first military chief from among the hundreds of thousands of Jews who emigrated from Middle East lands after Israel’s independence; they are often known as Mizrahi or Sephardi Jews. (Moshe Levy, the first Mizrahi chief of staff, who served from 1983 to 1987, was born in pre-state Tel Aviv.)

Mofaz is blunt but soft-spoken. He distinguishes himself from his political colleagues by patiently waiting for an interlocutor to finish speaking, and then directly answering the question without segueing to his preferred issue.

As chief of staff, Mofaz managed the tough response to the Second Intifada, ordering raids and home demolitions. When he retired, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made him defense minister in 2002. Three years later, when Sharon left the rightist Likud Party to establish the more centrist Kadima, he considered it critical to bring Mofaz with him to establish credibility with hawks and the Mizrahi community.

Mofaz joined, and Netanyahu more than once attempted to lure him back to the Likud. Leading Kadima’s peace-skeptic right wing, Mofaz had uncomfortable, competitive relationships with Sharon’s successors as party leader, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. (He convincingly defeated Livni in internal party elections in March.)

In 2009, however, having been defeated by Livni for the party leadership in the wake of Olmert’s departure to face corruption charges, Mofaz came up with a peace plan that was far-reaching in two respects: It proposed an interim Palestinian state in place of incremental talks he said were dooming the peace process, and he did not count out the inclusion of Hamas on the Palestinian side.

Mofaz holds to the same peace plan today, and it is his quiet optimism on this and other issues that has helped earn him a serious hearing in Washington. Like Netanyahu and Barak, he insists it is critical that Iran be kept from acquiring nuclear weapons. Unlike them, he holds out hope for intensified sanctions (although not talks) and insists that the United States and the West must take the lead should it come to a military strike.

Whether Mofaz’s posture becomes pre-eminent within Israel’s government remains to be seen. For certain, however, he is a man whose presence is being taken seriously.