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    Middle East
     Jun 17, 2011

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Ex-Mossad man a fit for Sharon's shoes
By Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - A new star is about to rise on the Israeli political horizon. Given the widely perceived impasse on all fronts, the time may be just right.

Analysts have long lamented what they call a "deadlock" in the Israeli political system. Last year, American think-tank Stratfor described the situation in the following way:
Israel has had weak governments for a generation. These governments are weak because they are formed by coalitions made up of diverse and sometimes opposed parties. In part, this is due to Israel's electoral system, which increases the likelihood that parties that would never enter the parliament of other countries do sit in the Knesset [parliament] with a handful of members. There are enough of these that the major parties never come close to a ruling majority and the coalition government that has to be created is crippled from the beginning. An Israeli prime minister spends most of his time avoiding dealing with important issues, since his cabinet would fall apart if he did. [1]
This deadlock is part of what blocks the peace negotiations,

alongside with the near-complete lack of consensus and political will on the Palestinian side and formidable gaps between what the two sides are prepared to offer. It also prevents comprehensive solutions to pressing internal Israeli problems - the monopoly of the Orthodox religious establishment over marriage comes to mind, and the ensuing problems for many Israelis who are not "officially" recognized as Jewish by this establishment.

Both internally and externally, Israeli governments have time and again failed to take bold action in pursuit of a clear long-term vision, and their approach has often been described by critics as "putting out fires".

One recent exception stands out, and this is Ariel Sharon, who defied his own Likud party (and broke away from it, forming the current main opposition party Kadima) and forced the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. This specific decision continues to create a lot of controversy in Israel, with its opponents pointing to Hamas' subsequent takeover of the strip and its proponents pointing to the international support it generated; Sharon's courage and ability to impose his vision, however, are almost universally admired.

Both Sharon's military career and his hawkishness on security issues are well known; besides being regarded as a war hero for his role in the 1967 and 1973 wars, he was involved in a number of operations through the years that caused heavy Palestinian civilian casualties. Even after he started voicing centrist political ideas, he remained a tough security man. In 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising), he launched Operation Defensive Shield in which the Israeli army took over a number of West Bank cities.

The formal occasion for the start of that intifada was Sharon's visit to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in 2000. Some time afterward, certainly by 2003, he changed his heart about his political views. Though most Palestinians never trusted him (aside from all else, he was behind both the early settlement movement decades ago and the security fence after the Second Intifada started), he uttered the fateful words "viable Palestinian state".

Sharon's forceful personality and his security credentials allowed him to push through his visions despite stiff domestic opposition. In 2005, he pulled the Israeli army out of Gaza. His stroke in 2006 and the coma in which he has been ever since have prevented the more ambitious parts of his political program from being implemented. Nobody on the Israeli political scene stepped into his shoes.

"Had Ariel Sharon not had his stroke," Stratfor wrote in its analysis from almost a year ago, "there might have been a strong leader who could wrestle the Israeli political system to the ground and impose a settlement. But at this point, there has not been an Israeli leader since Menachem Begin [who negotiated the peace treaty with Egypt in the late 1970s] who could negotiate with confidence in his position. [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself caught between the United States and his severely fractured cabinet by peace talks."

Only two Israeli prime ministers since Begin have convincingly defied this political weakness - Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords and the peace treaty with Jordan, and Sharon. Rabin is dead, assassinated by a right-wing extremist in 1995, and Sharon is permanently incapacitated. Until recently, there seemed to be no potential replacement to either of them.

Enter stage Meir Dagan, the man whom Sharon appointed to lead the spy agency Mossad in 2002 because he wanted "a Mossad with a knife between its teeth". According to most versions of the story, Sharon was dissatisfied with the softer approach of Dagan's predecessor, Efraim Halevy, and thus he picked Dagan, whom he had known and whose toughness he had admired since the early 1970s.

According to another story, Dagan, a retired major general who was involved with the special forces throughout his military career, had a reputation for "cutting off Palestinians' heads with a Japanese knife". [2]

As chief of the Mossad, Dagan certainly lived up to his reputation. His daring exploits and methodical planning became legendary, and his term was extended by three years for "extraordinary achievements", twice by former prime minister Ehud Olmert and once by Netanyahu.

Among countless successful operations attributed to him are numerous assassinations of Arab terrorists, including that of Hezbollah terror mastermind Imad Mughniyeh in a tightly-guarded part of Damascus in 2008. He is also credited with the destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 and with slowing down the Iranian nuclear program, in part with the help of the highly-sophisticated computer worm Stuxnet.

Dagan emerged from the Mossad late last year as a national hero of sorts. Similarly to Sharon, he is reviled and feared both by Israel's enemies and by his domestic opponents; similarly to Sharon, at some point in the recent past he apparently underwent a dramatic political transformation.

His disagreements with Netanyahu reportedly started before he left office - it is likely that the prime minister refused to extend his term by yet another year precisely because of this. His opposition to a strike on Iran is chief among his publicly known disagreements with the prime minister; some speculate that with the help of a few other senior security officials he even managed to block a concrete plan for an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities last year. [3]

It was not until the past month and a half, however, that Dagan dropped two big bombshells on the Israeli political scene. First, he came out publicly with the statement that an Israeli strike on Iran was the "stupidest thing I have ever heard", which he later clarified by saying that the Jewish state would not withstand "a regional war that it would not know how to get out of". [4] Then he claimed that Israel should endorse a version of the Saudi peace initiative, calling for a resolution of the conflict on the basis of the 1967 lines.

This put him on a collision course with Netanyahu, who vehemently opposes the 1967 lines as a basis for the negotiations and continues to insist that an attack on Iran should not be ruled out. "It seems the former Mossad chief has chosen to position himself on the left of the political map," Israeli journalist Aviel Magnezi notes. [5]

Dagan, 66, cannot enter politics immediately - at least not through the front door. He is bound by a law that requires him to "cool off" for three years after retiring from the security establishment. Only then can he run for the Knesset and become a prime minister.

There is a back door, however: he can be appointed to a ministerial position by whoever wins the next election, as an independent expert. Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli army, used this back door in 2002 when he was made defense minister by Sharon only months after retiring from the army; the next elections in Israel are scheduled for 2013, and if Netanyahu's right-wing coalition is ousted, there is no reason why Dagan would not be able to do the same.

Continued 1 2  

(Not) all is quiet on the Israel-Palestine front (Jun 7, '11)

Is an attack on Iran in the works?
(Jun 7, '11)

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3. Siamese twins sharing the same brain

4. The wrong part of China in Manhattan

5. Erdogan leads Turks - and the Middle East

6. Maran hangs on amid expanding 2G scam

7. Many roads,and no collective mind

8. Colors bleed ahead of Thai polls

9. Syria boils, US warship in Black Sea

10. US escalates war against al-Qaeda in Yemen

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jun 15, 2011)


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