Victor Kotsov
The Asia Times (Opinion)
June 17, 2011 - 12:00am

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.

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".

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.

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". 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.

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.

The political battle seems to have started already. Dagan's statements stirred a lot of controversy, and several ministers alongside a number of analysts claimed that they had hurt national security. Some accused him of hypocrisy and diagnosed him with "retiring general syndrome". "If Dagan had such dramatic criticism for his superiors," writes Israeli analyst Yoaz Hendel, "he should have said so during his term in office or quit."

Some supported him, including other former top security men who had undergone an ideological shift to the left. "The man left office after many years of service," former Israeli counter-intelligence agency Shin Beth boss Yaakov Peri stressed. "You have to listen to him very carefully. His words are very calculated. Set in stone. He can back everything up."

A few others voiced balanced criticism. In a recent interview, Zvi Zamir, a legendary former chief of the Mossad in the late 1960s and early 1970s, lamented that the situation looked to him like that preceding the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but nevertheless criticized Dagan for the manner in which he chose to intervene.

"Formally speaking, he hasn't broken any laws, though he may have broken some ethically," Zamir said. "I can't recall a Mossad chief that had this kind of outburst. I was as shocked as any reader and wondered why this was in the newspaper but he didn't reveal any secrets."

According to prominent Israeli analyst Aluf Benn, Netanyahu is already waging a public relations battle against Dagan:

The minute [Netanyahu] identified Dagan as an enemy, he began a campaign to destroy him, beginning with claims that the former Mossad boss talks too much and can therefore undermine state security - or, in brief, that Dagan is unreliable.

Further down the line, if Dagan continues to attack Netanyahu, the prime minister is likely to step up the pressure with claims that would make the former Mossad chief appear to have been incompetent or, even worse, a liar.

If Dagan withstands these attacks and carries on with his assault, he may prove a suitable leader for the opposition. His patron, Sharon, withstood many attacks that were much more severe, and kept at it. Now, Dagan is being tested.

Even a law to silence him might be in the making. Soon after his comments, a draft "Dagan law" bill was circulated in the Knesset that, if passed, would impose restrictions on former security officials' rights to issue statements. "They should definitely think twice before voicing opinions on sensitive issues," one of the bill's sponsors told Israeli Internet news site Ynet.

Whether Dagan can withstand the "tests" remains to be seen. Behind all the hype, however, for the first time in several years there appears to be a real battle of visions in Israel. The narrative of Netanyahu and his right-wing allies, based on a short-term vision that there is no chance of peace and therefore no sense in negotiations and concessions, is being challenged by a narrative which says that peace, while facing formidable obstacles, is the only realistic long-term vision, because the alternatives are even grimmer.

Dagan, if he indeed champions this latter narrative, would not have invented it; he would have inherited it from Sharon, who in turn received a version of it from Rabin, Begin and others.

Even Netanyahu's ally, the influential Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has warned publicly that inaction would lead to a "diplomatic tsunami" hitting Israel later this year, with the expected declaration of Palestinian independence. The consequences of an attack on Iran would be even more direct and destructive. Most analysts believe that the Israeli home front would come under heavy missile fire from Iran and its allies.

Moreover, an Israeli drive for peace, even without concrete results, would strengthen Israel's international position. It could severely undermine the Palestinian strategy against Israel, Stratfor argues in a more recent analysis. According to Stratfor:

[O]n the Palestinian side, the real crisis will occur should Dagan win the debate. The center of gravity of Palestinian weakness is the inability to form a united front around the position that Israel has a right to exist. Some say it, some hint it and others reject it. An interesting gamble is to give the Palestinians what the Americans and Europeans are suggesting - modified 1967 borders. For Israel, the question is whether the risk of holding the present position is greater than the risk of a dramatic shift. For the Palestinians, the question is what they will do if there is a dramatic shift. The Palestinian dilemma is the more intense and interesting one - and an interesting opportunity for Israel.

In some ways, if more urgent regional challenges are resolved, the time may be ripe for such a counter-strategy. Part of Israel's reluctance to accept a Palestinian state came from the undeclared opposition of its regional allies Egypt and Jordan to the idea, each for its own reasons.

Its bitter enemy Syria could have created trouble as well, since it is reportedly not very fond of the prospect of Palestinian independence, either. In the wake of the Arab uprisings, however, all these countries will most likely find it much more difficult to oppose, even covertly, a peace initiative based on the two-state solution.

Among the benefits is that even if a brutal war breaks out following the implementation of a similar strategy, the Israeli government would be able to claim that it did what it could to achieve peace, and would thus strengthen its domestic and international support.

The latter speculations are just that - speculations - but what is beyond doubt is that for the first time in years there is a chance of serious movement on the Israeli political scene. If Dagan's political star twinkles, he could shake up the impasse that has characterized Israeli politics and Middle Eastern diplomacy for many years.


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