Shaul Mofaz: Hello, I Must Be Going

The following just went up on Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column.

Yes, Shaul Mofaz joined the Netanyahu government to keep from facing a September election in which he and Kadima were headed for humiliation. But (as I argued here a little while back) he also cagily positioned himself to emerge the only leader who could eventually deny the current Likud-led coalition a Knesset majority in the next election, perhaps even find himself an unlikely custodian of Israel's globalist (yet fragile) civil society.

Netanyahu has now offered Mofaz his ribs and handed him a shiv. Will Mofaz have the daring to thrust?

The key here is the overwhelming sense of revulsion, in critical electoral sectors, regarding ultra-Orthodox military shirking and economic sponging. I am referring to more highly educated Mizrahim, Russian secularists, economic centrists, and young people in general--voters in the habit of choosing Likud.

Two-thirds of Israelis want change in the draft and, correspondingly, an end to a state of affairs in which so many Israelis are unfit for ordinary work and citizenship. Only 13 percent think the current situation is acceptable. Some 56 percent of Israelis are in the workforce. In Japan, say, the number is 68 percent.

Mofaz joined the government, remember, because the Tal Law, which exempted pretty much all Yeshiva students from military duty, was held to be unconstitutional--a violation of the Basic Law of Human Dignity--by the High Court of Justice. Netanyahu might have challenged the court or tried to water down the basic law. But that would mean favoring his right brain, which lives in Ariel, over his left, which lives in North Tel Aviv.

So he promised reform instead, brought Kadima into the coalition, and enjoyed a few weeks being King of Israel and Vanity Fair's darling. The problem is he promised that the next law, to be drafted by a committee chaired by a Kadima bank-bencher, Yochanan Plessner, would finally spread obligations to national service equally on all citizens, including Haredim and Israeli Arabs. And the bigger problem is that Plessner surprised everybody by actually doing his job.

Plessner's final plan, which he reported out of committee (or what was left of it) yesterday, envisions increasing to 80 percent the proportion of Haredi youth doing some kind of national (including military) service over the next five years. He would impose serious financial and other penalties on those who do not. The report also envisions tripling the number of Israeli Arabs doing national service during this period, to something like 7500 youth. The goal would be universal service for the 30,000 or so of draft-age. (The Arab parties are not amused, but they are not in government, which I’ll come back to presently.)

By the time Plessner reported, however, Netanyahu had already begun backtracking, fearing becoming Kadima's hostage instead of its master. He scorned the Plessner committee and declared its deliberations "irrelevant," which in a way they were as the basis for a coalition bill. Shas leaders had pulled out, fearing the consequences for its Yeshivot. (Presumably, the Czar had also resorted to conscription to pull Jewish youth out of Judaism.)

Avigdor Lieberman, for his part, had pulled out, too, insisting (not without a certain logic) that any obligations imposed on Haredi youth should be imposed equally on Arab youth. Again, however, Arab parties are not invited into government. And Lieberman is not correspondingly entertaining legal reforms to dismantle quasi-official Zionist institutions that discriminate against Arabs, especially in land, or initiatives to advance the peace process, so that Arab Israelis would not wind up policing members of their own clans across the Green Line.

Which brings us back to Mofaz. In contrast, he defended Plessner's report, and put Netanyahu on notice that he intends to leave the government if Plessner's "principles" are not enacted. Some keen analysts, like Reshet Bet radio's Hanan Krystal, suspect that the word "principles" is meant to give everyone wiggle room. But Mofaz is suddenly in the surprising position of being able to embody the general will; all he has to do is resign. Imagine his political future, says Krystal, if Mofaz stays and starts haggling over ministries for Kadima people.

Mofaz must know that, in this atmosphere, going along with Netanyahu will make him irrelevant. Of course, Netanyahu is counting on Mofaz acting like a politician; Mofaz didn't get to be Chief-of-Staff by being politically obtuse. If he wants, he can just invoke the Iran threat, and call for continuing unity. Netanyahu is meanwhile scrambling to supersede the Plessner committee with intra-coalition negotiations conducted by himself.

But Netanyahu is the one being obtuse. In effect, he is trying to make himself the champion of compromise. But this would be a compromise that preserves a clearly obnoxious and broken system of conscription based on past compromises; a system that makes the vast majority of Israeli Jews feel like suckers, or friarim, in the street parlance. And a significant group within Kadima is threatening to bolt if Plessner's law is scrapped and Mofaz stays.

Anyway, if Mofaz does stay then he deserves to be irrelevant. He has a golden opportunity to become a national leader simply by going back to the opposition, leaving it to the media to roast Netanyahu for ideological creepiness, while valorizing Mofaz's statesmanship. He becomes Mr. Center.

Besides, to placate Kadima's North Tel Aviv base, Mofaz has to keep his promise and try to advance the dialogue with moderate Palestinian leaders, the way Kadima leaders Olmert and Livni did. But when Mofaz was scheduled to meet with Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah this past week, so many Facebook groups sprouted up threatening fierce demonstrations (or so my friends in Palestine tell me) that Abbas called off the meeting.

Clearly, a Netanyahu coalition that cannot advance Israeli civil society against the claims of Jewish ultra-nationalists and ultra-Orthodox cannot advance peace with Palestine either. Why stay if not to forge a centrist coalition without the forces Netanyahu is once again pandering to? The latter likes to think he is Israel's Churchill. He is closer to Israel's von Papen, a centrist with nationalist sentimentality, and vain enough to think he can feed the beasts and not eventually be devoured by them.

A part of the Palestinian reaction to Mofaz, it is true, stems from his having been Sharon’s Defense Minister during the second Intifada. But then, Yitzhak Rabin was Shamir’s Defense Minister during the first.