- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

Meeting Shaul Mofaz

We had little idea of what to expect when we went to interview Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz on Thursday morning. He is, by reputation, one of the most hard-line members of the Israeli Cabinet, but it was his first interview with an American newspaper and none of us had seen him in action.

Pentagon reporter Rowan Scarborough, State Department reporter David Sands, photographer Bert Goulait and I took part in the interview, conducted on a secure upper floor of a downtown hotel.

There we waited for 15 or 20 minutes in a spacious and nicely appointed lounge for Mr. Mofaz to return from an appointment with Vice President Dick Cheney. I joked with our Israeli Embassy escort, Mark Regev, that it must have been only because of the card security on the elevator that there were no U.S. Secret Service officers guarding the doors.

“Didn’t you see them?” he replied.

My powers of observation may be slipping, but there was no missing the Israeli security men, who searched and scanned us one by one and scrutinized all our gear.

While waiting, we discussed some of the issues we wanted to be sure to cover.

Mr. Scarborough wanted to ask Mr. Mofaz about any military hardware that Israel was hoping to purchase, what lessons the United States could learn from Israel in dealing with the so-called “improvised explosive devices” being used against U.S. forces in Iraq and whether any future air strikes were likely against Syria or Iran.

Mr. Sands and I wanted to be sure to ask about the prospects for peace talks with the newly formed Palestinian government headed by Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia.

The interview

We were led finally into a smaller living room where we all shook hands with Mr. Mofaz and settled on chairs and sofas around a coffee table. Mr. Regev and an aide remained in the room with Mr. Mofaz while a security man stood near the door, glowering at us.

Mr. Goulait crouched and began shooting pictures as the interview began with a few pleasantries, watching closely for any gestures or other signs of animation that would make for an interesting shot.

We began with a couple of softball questions to set the minister at ease and get him talking.

The first was a general question about his meetings in Washington, which included all the top members of President Bush’s national security team.

We had hoped he might bring up something newsworthy that we didn’t know about or hadn’t thought to ask about, but he simply told us that his meetings had gone very well.

One more softball and then Mr. Scarborough jumped in with his set of questions. He hit pay dirt but not where we would have expected.

In explaining his government’s recent air strikes against Syria, Mr. Mofaz began to talk about Syria’s role in Lebanon, which it dominates, and then told us there is a major terrorist training base in Lebanon run by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network.

What’s more, he said, some of the al Qaeda terrorists making their way into Iraq to attack American forces are coming from this camp.

That comment became the lead of Mr. Scarborough’s front-page story for Friday, but there was more good stuff to come.

Asked about the prospects for talks with the Palestinians, Mr. Mofaz said Israel would talk but would insist that the Palestinians take concrete steps against terrorism “from the very first moment.”

In explaining why, he shared with us a piece of intelligence that, so far as we know, had never before been reported.

At a meeting with militant organizations and his own security chiefs in 2001, Mr. Mofaz said, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat asked, “Why are Israeli casualties so low?”

Offered a variety of explanations, Mr. Arafat then said, “You know what to do,” according to Mr. Mofaz, and a three-year orgy of bloodletting ensued.

“How do you know this?” Mr. Scarborough asked, with little real expectation of getting an answer.

“I won’t give you all of my secrets in one session,” Mr. Mofaz replied with a laugh.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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