The new government can definitely be a force to be reckoned with in the diplomatic arena, both with the Palestinians and with the American administration. Jump-starting the stalled peace process is no longer up to Israel -- even the Americans and the Europeans understand that now. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to take this opportunity and jump on the bandwagon. Mofaz can serve as the ladder that enables the Palestinians to climb off their ledge. The man who at one time formulated an agreement by which Israel would relinquish 100 percent of Palestinian land can be seen as a fresh partner for dialogue and a bridge to Netanyahu's and the government's official stance.
Mofaz can assume the role of chief negotiator with the Palestinians and take advantage of the fact that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who would theoretically be the obvious choice for that role, never took an interest in the issue. As the head of a large centrist party, Mofaz can also change the attitude of the Obama administration toward Israel.
Israel makes a clear distinction between the American administration's unprecedented security assistance as well as the immense defense aid it dispenses (just this week a budget was submitted to Congress including billions of dollars to be allocated for the Iron Dome defense system) and the disagreements on the Iranian issue, with the attendant personal animosity between Obama and Netanyahu. There, too, Mofaz can be of service.
Mofaz preferred not to accept a specific ministerial portfolio (becoming instead a minister without a portfolio), and the Prime Minister's Office has denied the rumors that Netanyahu offered him the strategic affairs or the intelligence affairs portfolios. In practice, the prime minister focused Mofaz's efforts on Iran. Both these jobs have to do with the American connection to the Iranian issue and Mofaz has already served in the past as a minister in charge of relations with the U.S. administration.
One of the central arguments in the recent criticisms by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former Israel Security Agency director Yuval Diskin was that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were a “pair” who were irresponsibly leading the country into an attack on Iran due to their "messianism."
This week, the “pair” -- Netanyahu and Barak -- became a threesome, as the top decision making echelon gained a new key player. The Forum of Eight senior ministers became the Forum of Nine. With Barak, Moshe Ya'alon, and new recruit Shaul Mofaz, now one third of the forum are former IDF chiefs of general staff.
After Sept. 4 was set as the date for early elections, a political bombshell was dropped. At the culmination of a dramatic night, the new union was presented. The two grooms marched into the Negev auditorium in the Knesset and stood at two podiums labeled "Prime Minister's Office."
Several hours later, during the evening news, newscaster Yonit Levy asked Channel 2's political analyst Amnon Abramovich: "What is holding this together? Spit and ambition?" On the rival television channel, whose news edition focused on the implications of the new coalition on the Iran issue, commentator Emmanuel Rosen referenced Diskin's "messianic" accusation and asked, "If Bibi [Netanyahu] is the messiah, what will Mofaz be? The messiah's donkey?"
Endless words have been said and written about this political maneuver, and it has garnered a plethora of nicknames. Now it appears that, from a political standpoint, it could really be a game changer. The press conference Netanyahu and Mofaz staged on Tuesday, the day their secret deal to form a national unity government was announced, mainly served to satisfy the reporters. The Iranian question came up, as did the stalled peace process, but with the kind of ambiguity that is more typical of other forums. The motivation that the prime minister presented for the move with Mofaz was the Tal Law, which exempts ultra-Orthodox Israelis from mandatory military service. The imminent expiration of the law, and the need to formulate an alternative, was the driving force behind the near-dissolution of the Knesset and the calling of the early elections, prevented at the last minute by the coalition deal between Netanyahu and Mofaz).
The explanations for the coalition agreement did not contain a single reference to the fact that "this is a fateful time for Israel" -- Mofaz's words during the press conference. Were these words intended simply for dramatic effect or are they a hint of things to come? Those who thought that early elections were aimed solely at advancing an attack on Iran -- during the reign of an interim government and before the U.S. presidential elections -- can stick with that theory now that the early elections have been called off and a national unity government has been established. The prime minister has widened the coalition to 94 MKs and neutralized the main political main opposition to an attack (the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which will now be chaired by coalition member and former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter). He has also enlisted a new member to the security forums.
Mofaz also serves as an indispensable liaison to IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. The two have been close friends for years and they tend to confer with each other. Up until now it was Opposition Leader Mofaz that the chief of staff was conferring with. Now he will be conferring with Vice Prime Minister Mofaz.
Attempts to analyze Mofaz's opinion on Iran could prove tricky. Mofaz, born in Iran, obviously knows the dangers involved in a nuclear Iran as well as an attack on Iran. But only weeks ago Mofaz accused Netanyahu of using the Iranian issue to deflect the public's attention from the social injustices they had been protesting. In other places, and at other times, he expressed a different opinion. Even publicly, like that interview in 2005 when he threatened an attack and set off a spike in global oil prices.
In their joint press conference, Netanyahu and Mofaz declared that "stability has been achieved." Everyone is now well aware that with such a broad coalition, theoretically the prime minister can get anything approved. He is no longer dependent on the ultra-Orthodox parties and can modify the Tal Law as he pleases. He is no longer dependent on the New Religious Party or Yisrael Beitenu and can order the demolition of the houses in Beit El built on disputed land. Any decision can be approved in accordance with the platforms of the centrist parties.
Under the coalition agreement, Mofaz decided not to demand any ministerial portfolios in the first phase, not for himself and not for his party members. That is where his power lies. He is a provisory partner with very clear deadlines: Aug. 1, when the Tal Law legally expires, and the end of the year for electoral reform (Mofaz stated that the two main reasons that he joined the coalition were to amend the Tal Law and to modify the failing system of government. The coalition deal states that an agreement must be reached on electoral reform by December.