Imagine, then, if Peters were to come out tomorrow threatening, say, to bomb Iran back to the stone age if Iran insisted on building a nuclear weapon. It would sound not merely discordant or inappropriate but plain nutty. She would not survive the week in the administration.
(Federal agency heads, the American equivalent of other countries' ministers, have been fired for much less: recall Jocelyn Elders, President Clinton's Surgeon General, fired in December 1994 for telling a United Nations AIDS conference that masturbation "is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught." It didn't matter that Elders was on topic and speaking within her capacity as one of the nation's most interesting surgeons general.)
Rules are different in the Middle East. In most countries, ministers are requested by the ruling strongman or despot or monarch to be unseen and unheard, whatever the topic. It distracts from the 110% of the attention the head guy likes on himself. Unless it's Israel. In Israel, ministerships are rebranded soap boxes. Ministers like to speak their mind, not just about what their job description dictates. Ariel Sharon, remember, was trade and industry minister for six years (1984—1990), housing and construction minister for three (1990—1992), and infrastructure minister for two (1996—1998), but he never stopped being the bombastic, irrepressible Ariel Sharon Israelis loved and hated as he used those soapboxes to weave his way to the top of Israel's government in 2001 (where he remained until his stroke in 2006).
That explains why Shaul Mofaz, Israel's transportation minister, felt entirely in his element as he promised the following scenario in an interview with an Israeli periodical: "If Iran continues its nuclear arms program - we will attack it. The sanctions aren't effective. There will be no choice but to attack Iran to halt the Iranian nuclear program."
Mofaz also said that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust, denies Israel's right to exist and has spoken, so far metaphorically, of wiping it off the map, "will disappear before Israel does." And that America would support whatever Israel does.
Emphatic words that immediately caught the world's attention, sending the price of oil to a record $11 single-day spike, to $138 a barrel (also a record), and U.S. stock markets tumbling more than 3 percent. True, Mofaz is a former defense minister and chief of staff. He has his eyes on the prime ministership, as any self-respecting Israeli politician does: he just launched a bid to replace Ehud Olmert as the head of the centrist Kadima Party, though there's nothing centrist about his comments. True, too, that Ehud Olmert, the current Prime minister, has been too busy fighting official corruption charges and unofficial charges of incompetence (from the press, the public and fellow-ministers angling for his job) to pay the Mideastern chessboard much heed.
But all this makes you wonder who is really leading Israel at the moment, and to what extent off-the-cuff comments like Mofaz's, meant more to appeal to an electorate riven and driven by extremists than to stake out real policies, can take a life of their own, morph into official policy or, worse, trigger reactions beyond Israel that Israel will not be able to control. I don't mean just the price of oil or world markets, which appear now to be somewhat contingent on the careless political comments of Israeli politicians, but the even more tenuous, and tension-filled, balance of power that so far has kept the region's enmities fortunately more rhetorical than mobilized for war.
At any rate, it was left up to the Bush White House uncharacteristically to intervene to ratchet down the rhetoric and reassure friends and foes that diplomacy, for now, is still the weapon of choice.