JERUSALEM (JTA) – If Shaul Mofaz succeeds Ehud Olmert as the head of the Kadima Party and, eventually, as Israeli prime minister, he may have Iran to thank.
Fifty years after Mofaz left his native Tehran for the fledgling Jewish state, the retired general-turned-politician has made the Iranian threat – be it nuclear bombs or support for terrorism – the centerpiece of his run for top office.
“The Iranians are the root of all evil,” the gravelly voiced Mofaz said shortly after officially launching his campaign following Olmert’s announcement that he would not run for re-election.
The strategy is clear. With polls showing Mofaz trailing Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni ahead of the Sept. 17 leadership election in Kadima, the former army chief of staff and ex-defense minister is playing up his military pedigree.
“In Israeli politics there is a basic truism that the strong leader with a background in national security has an advantage,” U.S. political consultant Arthur Finkelstein wrote in a July 31 letter to Mofaz that was leaked to Israel’s Channel 2 TV. “I am convinced that you will win the Kadima primaries because, in this case, you are the strong leader.”
Mofaz, 59, currently Israel’s transportation minister, is a relative newcomer to politics but has been on the national stage for a decade. In 1998, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed the celebrated paratrooper officer, who took part in the 1976 Entebbe rescue, to be the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff. Mofaz served in the post under three prime ministers, including Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon.
Mofaz’s handling of the second intifada, his greatest challenge as chief of staff, was somewhat controversial. He backed tough tactics to put down the campaign of Palestinian terrorism, including targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders. His positions won him plaudits among many in Israel, but his tactics were criticized overseas and were seen by some Israelis as exceedingly harsh.
After he left the IDF to become defense minister under Sharon, Mofaz unwittingly was recorded urging Sharon to assassinate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Even after leaving the right-wing Likud Party for Sharon’s newly founded centrist alternative, Kadima – a move taken only after initially rejecting the idea and declaring himself a candidate for the Likud’s leadership – Mofaz has not shied away from embracing hawkish stances.
In June, he told an interviewer that Israel would attack Iran if the Islamic Republic continued its program to develop nuclear weapons.
“The sanctions are ineffective,” Mofaz said. “Attacking Iran, in order to stop its nuclear plans, will be unavoidable.”
Oil prices surged in response, but Mofaz held firm, repeating his assertion several days later and saying during a visit to Washington, “The existence of the State of Israel is more important than gas prices.”
Such indelicate talk has stirred concern among some in Israel that Mofaz is not ready to be a statesman.
“Had Shaul Mofaz been contending for the leadership of a rightist militant party, we would not expect anything else of him,” veteran political analyst Emmanuel Rosen said. “Yet when it comes to someone who wishes to become the chairman of a centrist party and a prime minister, we would like to hear something that is a little deeper, creative and mostly realistic in respect to dealing with tough regional problems.”
If elected the prime minister, Mofaz would be the first non-Ashkenazi Jew to hold the post. He lived in Iran until he was about 10 and spent his first years as an Israeli at a transit camp for Iranian immigrants.
Mofaz has made no secret of capitalizing on his ethnic roots when necessary – his main financial support reportedly comes from wealthy former Iranians in Israel, and he has received the blessings of Sephardic leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Sephardic-Orthodox Shas Party. But he has not played the “race card” in his campaign.
Mofaz also has taken care to balance out his more hawkish statements on Iran with calls for Israel to continue pursuing peace talks with the Palestinians, then Syria and other Arab foes – albeit without rushing things.
“I think it isn’t right to allocate a time limit to complicated processes. First they have to be given a different economic reality and we have to renew trust,” he said of the Palestinians in a recent interview with Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot. “I will conduct negotiations with them myself.”
“There will be no situation, like now, in which Israel talks in three voices – that of Olmert, that of Livni and that of the Americans. The process with the Palestinians should be results based. It’s for good reason I was called Mr. Realist. The Palestinians know me. I will find a common language with them. They know that with me, my word is my word.”
For the past two years, Mofaz has represented Israel in regular strategic talks with the Bush administration. Those talks have centered on dealing with the problem of Iran.
Despite his harsh talk on attacking Iran, Mofaz takes care to distinguish between the radical regime of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs, and ordinary Iranian people, of whom Mofaz speaks fondly.
Addressing a Washington audience last month, Mofaz recalled holding a telephone discussion with a Tehran taxi driver during a Persian-language radio address that was relayed to Iran.
“You were at Entebbe,” the cabbie said, according to Mofaz. “Can’t you come here too and rescue us from the mullahs?”