My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:
Israel’s new deputy prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, put a higher priority on achieving peace with the Palestinians than on confronting Iran, on Tuesday (June 19). He proposed an interim deal on borders and security to “break the ice” in negotiations.
Speaking to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on his first trip to Washington since joining the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Kadima leader, and former defense minister and armed forces chief of staff, said Israel has a “window of opportunity” of 18 months before new elections “to make historic changes both in Israel and with our neighbors.”
Mofaz listed his priorities as requiring all Israeli citizens — including ultra-orthodox Jews and Arabs — to perform some sort of national service, changing the political system to weed out tiny parties, making it possible for governments to last longer, passing a new budget with a beefed-up social agenda and kick-starting negotiations with the Palestinians.
“If we don’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the coming years… it is more dangerous to the state of Israel than the Iranian threat,” he said, noting demographic trends that will soon equalize the number of Jews and non-Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
“We cannot continue to rule another nation. We have to find a solution,” he said.
Mofaz said the Israelis and Palestinians should resume negotiations, which have been suspended for nearly two years, and seek an interim deal on borders and security arrangements. After that, he said, it would be easier to resolve other issues including the status of Jerusalem, refugees, water, holy sites and air space.
He also said that Israel should hold on to Jerusalem and major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. The Palestinians have refused to return to talks unless Israel suspends settlement construction. Mofaz said there should be no preconditions for negotiations.
While he described Iran’s nuclear program as an “existential threat” to Israel and complained that Iran was playing for time in talks with major powers, the Iran-born Mofaz seemed to take a much less alarmist view of Iran than Netanyahu.
Asked to explain what he meant when he said that the time for diplomacy and sanctions was “limited,” Mofaz said that military action was a “last resort” and that Iran’s adversaries could wait until Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decides to take “the last step for having a bomb.” According to US intelligence, Khamenei has not made such a decision.
Mofaz also said that Iran’s nuclear program was “a problem the superpowers should take care of” and that before using force, one should ask: “How long will we delay the Iranian program” and “What will happen the day after in the Middle East?”