Paul Pillar

Shaul Mofaz Tells It Like It Is

An admirable characteristic of Israeli democracy has been the vigor and frankness with which those who are permitted to participate in it conduct political debate. There is a refreshing directness and openness that, on some of the very same topics, is usually missing from political discourse in the United States. The Israeli style of debate over policy is in full view every day in the opinion pages of Israeli publications, and there was an especially up-tempo version of it in a blast on Thursday from Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mofaz may have been in an irritated mood partly because the occasion was a special session of the Knesset called to approve the selection of former internal-security-service chief Avi Dichter as minister for defense of the home front. In taking this job, Dichter left the Kadima Party, which he had represented in the Knesset. And this all not long after Mofaz himself had left a short-lived coalition with Netanyahu and returned to be leader of the opposition.

Mofaz had harsh things to say about the government's policies on homeland security, the subject of Dichter's new portfolio, but he linked this to the latest burst of saber rattling against Iran by Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak. In referring to Netanyahu's “incessant prattle about a nuclear Iran,” Mofaz said:

You are headed for a rash confrontation at an unnecessary cost while abandoning the home front. Over the past few months, Israel has waged an extensive and relentless PR campaign with the sole objective of preparing the ground for a premature military adventure. This PR campaign has deeply penetrated the “zone of immunity” of our national security, threatens to weaken our deterrence, and our relations with our best friends. . . . [You are] making threats and sowing the seeds of fear and terror. Mr. prime minister, you are playing a dangerous and irresponsible game with the future of an entire nation...You're creating panic. You are trying to frighten us and terrify us. And in truth we are scared: scared by your lack of judgment, scared that you both lead and don’t lead, scared that you are executing a dangerous and irresponsible policy.

It would enormously improve U.S. debate on this same subject if American politicians could be this direct. But instead they operate in fear of being seen to stray at all from the established dogma that Iran with its nuclear program is The Greatest Threat in the World. The severe constraints on American debate on the subject contribute to ineffective policy, such as endlessly piling on sanctions without a diplomatic posture that would give the sanctions any chance to yield a favorable result. And the whole issue never gets put in proper perspective because no American politician is brave and honest enough to observe that if we have a crisis it is mostly because of Netanyahu's “incessant prattle about a nuclear Iran.”

As for the political game that prevents American debate on this subject from getting any better, Mofaz had some blunt and honest things to say about that too:

Mr. prime minister, you want a crude, rude, unprecedented, reckless, and risky intervention in the US elections. Tell us who you serve and for what? Why are you putting your hand deep into the ballot boxes of the American electorate?

Of course, this subject is even more strictly off limits for American politicians. Among the many ill effects of the topic's untouchable status is one we are seeing in the current presidential election campaign: one candidate appeals for votes (and maybe even more so, for dollars) by posing as the more unabashed lover of Israel even though on things that really contribute to Israel's security every recent U.S. presidential administration has continued unrelenting support no matter what Israel does. Isn't it ironic that Israeli politicians seem to be able to talk more freely and critically about subjects pertaining to Israel than American politicians are?

For the record, it should be noted that the Israeli ambassador to the United States stated earlier this year, in what has to be one of the most risible ambassadorial assertions we have heard lately, that “Israel does not interfere in internal political affairs of the United States.”