On the Thursday before last, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz hosted dozens of senior reserve officers at his Kochav Yair home and shared with them his decision to contend for the Kadima party leadership. He asked them to help once he gave the signal.
This get-together took place two days after Ehud Barak's victory in the Labor Party primaries and a few hours before his hasty appointment as defense minister. While Mofaz realizes his chances of returning to the Defense Ministry are next to none, he is still determined to maintain the stability of his relationship with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Mofaz is certain Olmert has erred again and that this will become apparent shortly, when it transpires Barak is working from inside the government to get rid of Kadima. Mofaz has yet to recover from Olmert's first slap in the face - when Mofaz was pushed out of the Defense Ministry in favor of Amir Peretz. He does not forget and does not forgive. Not having been appointed defense minister yet again is increasing his motivation to speed up preparations for the Kadima party primaries. If Olmert's campaign to remain in office does not survive the Winograd Committee's final report, expected in late 2007, the date of the primaries, still unknown, is likely to catch the party by surprise. Mofaz assumed that after the failure of the Second Lebanon War and the farce of Peretz's appointment, he would return as the savior of his favored ministry. He also thought that the loyalty he demonstrated to Olmert during the "revolt" two months ago would be a factor.
Olmert learned of an attempt by Public Security Minister Avi Dichter to enlist Mofaz in a move to unseat the prime minister following the publication of the Winograd Committee's interim report. Dichter, according to the report that reached Olmert and has yet to be published, went to see Mofaz and informed him of the plan to unseat Olmert. The crux of the plan was to replace Olmert with Tzipi Livni. Mofaz told him: "You don't depose a sitting prime minister. That's not in my frame of reference." Almost immediately afterward, the information was relayed to Olmert, who in those fateful days between the release of the Winograd Committee report and Livni's press conference, was ostensibly quite nearly unseated.
When the revolt was quashed, Olmert and his associates made it clear to Dichter they were aware of his plot and that if he valued his position, he ought to take care to hold on to it.
Dichter rushed to issue a gushing statement of support for Olmert and has since vehemently denied any connection to the plot to overthrow the prime minister. None of this prevented him several days ago from stating in an interview with The Jerusalem Post that Kadima must be prepared to replace Olmert after the Winograd Committee's final report.
Other Kadima figures share this opinion. The same discussion is being heard in closed conversations and is also apparent in the recent behavior of would-be leaders Livni and Housing and Construction Minister Meir Sheetrit, who, like Mofaz, have accelerated their political activities.
The three are preparing for the race to become the leader of a party whose future is uncertain. Like Barak and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who are campaigning neck-and-neck and are not taking Olmert into account, Kadima also assumes Olmert will not be relevant in the next elections and the party can be revived even without Olmert and Shimon Peres.
Unlike Livni, Mofaz and Sheetrit, Olmert and his supporters are not involved in the internal maneuvering within Kadima. Olmert is completely preoccupied with survival and rebuilding his image.
The internal party vitality displayed by Livni, Mofaz and Sheetrit reveals that the quiet Olmert achieved after blocking the revolt was only fleeting and perhaps imaginary.
The desire to replace him exists; his heirs and rivals are awaiting further developments while preparing for the day after. Mofaz has managed to meet with 150 local authority heads since his appointment as transportation minister. He frequently organizes political gatherings, some at his home, and with the help of consultants and activists is conducting a quiet census.
Kadima's voter rolls are expected to close in late December 2008. It currently comprises 25,000 party members. Kadima's director general, Yohanan Plesner, estimates that in the next few months, the party will substantially increase the number of registered members. Sheetrit is considered the most organized and industrious recruiter.
The assessment is that he has signed up some 2,500 friends, a significant number of them from the Arab and Druze sectors and immigrants (Kadima has an impressive representation from these two sectors: around 5,000 out of its 25,000 registered members).
Sheetrit estimates that with a large constituency, he will be able to win over the party, and that he, unlike Livni and Mofaz, knows how to handle the political work.
If Kadima does not considerably increase its membership, it will be possible to win the party leadership with just 10,000 registered party member votes. Sheetrit managed to gain a foothold in the Histadrut Labor Federation after leading Kadima to impressive gains there. This is important for his ability to enlist supporters to join the party.
Like that between Olmert and Mofaz, a fear factor exists between Olmert and Sheetrit. Sheetrit made it clear to Olmert that he was the most suitable candidate for the finance minister post.
The last time around, Olmert preferred Abraham Hirchson, and Sheetrit was offended. As far as Sheetrit is concerned, Olmert can correct the injustice. If he ignores him again, he will be more motivated to stir up things within the party.
Despite the damage she incurred from the press conference in which she called on Olmert to resign, Livni is still leading in the polls. Kadima members consider her the party life saver. Since the press conference, she has patched things up with Olmert. She did not reiterate her demand for his resignation, but is devoting a fair amount of time to political legwork.
She organized a large gathering for Kadima members from rural communities surrounding the Gaza Strip last Thursday. Before the meeting, Livni met with Itamar Shimoni, the CEO of the Atarim Company and a former Likud man, who is considered one of the biggest enlisters of Kadima members. Shimoni, an Ashkelon resident, apparently signed up most of the 2,500 Kadima members in Ashkelon.
That same day he also met with Dichter. Those who know the party hacks state that Shimoni is actually a Sheetrit man, going back to their Likud days, and simply enjoys trading in the political dowry of new party members. Shimoni himself, through his spokesperson, downplays his political influence and insists the meetings with Livni and Dichter were not political and took place "in the framework of his capacity as chairman of the Defense Forum for Ashkelon, and the subject discussed was protective measures."
Livni, who realized she would not succeed in leading the way to open primaries, also understands she cannot rely solely on her status among the public and must, in turn, bite the bullet and enlist party members. In the end, the Kadima primaries will be determined on the basis of getting votes and organization.
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