New Israeli defense minister expected to lead hard line

Friday, November 1, 2002

JERUSALEM -- As Israel's army chief, Shaul Mofaz sent troops to reoccupy West Bank towns, hunt down militants and besiege Yasser Arafat's headquarters -- seemingly always a step ahead of Israel's politicians with ever-harsher measures against the Palestinians.

Now tapped as defense minister in a right-wing government without the moderating influence of the Labor Party, the 54-year-old Iranian-born general, whose tactics have inspired outrage among Palestinians, is expected to lead an even harder line.

Known for his independent streak, Mofaz has been criticized by many Israelis for overstepping his bounds by expressing his views on the conflict. But even his critics concede Mofaz is not a hothead or a hardline ideologue; he simply doesn't like to see Israel defeated in battle.

That, most observers agree, is why he opposed the unilateral Israeli troop withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, and that's why he believes the military must crush the Palestinian uprising before peace talks can resume.

Arafat, who has repeatedly singled out Mofaz in complaining about Israel's military strikes, said that he expected more trouble from the new defense minister.

"I expect an escalation against us, especially if we're talking about such a new government," Arafat said.

Mofaz is a career military man without political experience, and his Cabinet appointment, coming just four months after he left the army, raised eyebrows in Israel. By tradition, retired Israeli army officers take an informal hiatus from public life before assuming key political roles, in part to underscore the nonpolitical nature of military.

Despite misgivings, the appointment is expected to be approved by parliament, perhaps as early as Monday.

Previous Israeli prime ministers, including generals Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin, reserved the defense portfolio for themselves, arguing that some of the most crucial decisions they'd have to make would deal with security.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has stayed clear of the post, apparently because of his troubled past: In 1983, an Israeli commission of inquiry held Sharon indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees by Israeli-allied Lebanese militiamen. The panel forced him to resign as defense minister and said he could not hold the job again.

Moshe Negbi, an Israeli legal expert, said it was not clear whether the ban still held after 19 years, but that Sharon apparently was reluctant to press the issue.

Sharon and his defense minister-designate see eye-to-eye on the conflict with the Palestinians. Like Sharon, Mofaz believes Arafat orchestrated the 2-year-old uprising to extract concessions from Israel by force, that Arafat finances and organizes terror attacks and that peace talks can only resume with a new Palestinian leader, once violence has stopped.

In a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in September, Mofaz said a turning point in fighting Palestinian militants was the Passover suicide bombing at an Israeli hotel in which 29 people were killed.

"This introduced a new phase in the confrontation -- a phase in which Israel took the initiative, deployed forces on the scale of a conflict no longer considered to be low-intensity," Mofaz said.

Since then, Israel has unleashed two major military offensives, reoccupying most West Bank towns, arresting thousands of Palestinians, killing scores of wanted men in targeted attacks and demolishing dozens of homes of terror suspects. Arafat's compound has been besieged by Israeli troops several times and much of it was destroyed.

Mofaz made it clear that he wanted to go further and expel Arafat. "Let's seize the moment and kick him out," Mofaz whispered to Sharon during a public appearance shortly after the Passover bombing.

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