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MK Shaul Mofaz will not forget the night of September 17, 2008. For months he ran a quiet, methodical election campaign. He traveled all over the country and worked hard to recruit followers. He convinced a growing number of Kadima members to support his candidacy for party leader. During that entire time, the media were against him. The surveys were against him. The elites were against him. Israel had decided that Tzipi Livni was the Great White Hope, and did everything in its power to ensure her election. But Mofaz was convinced that he was about to surprise everyone. He had no doubt that he had enlisted 18,000 supporters who would guarantee his election. He believed that when the polls closed at 10 P.M. the arrogant ones would discover how mistaken they had been about him. Contrary to all the forecasts and contrary to all the expectations and contrary to all the spin, he would beat Livni. Kadima would be his. And if Kadima was his, the government of Israel would be his, too. The preliminary understandings with Shas and with Labor would be implemented, and within a few weeks, Mofaz would be prime minister of Israel.

But the polls didn't close at 10 P.M. A surprising decision by the Elections Committee prolonged the voting by half an hour. At the same time, the television channels publicized a survey claiming that Livni had won big. Mofaz's supporters, who thought the die was cast, left the polling stations. After a nerve-racking vote count that lasted all night, Livni had won by 431 votes. A sure victory with a 4 percent advantage turned into a searing defeat by a dubious gap of 1 percent.

Mofaz was stunned. Attorney Yehuda Weinstein, who is about to become the attorney general, advised him to turn to the courts. Various pieces of evidence he had received pointed to a series of improper deeds that had ostensibly been done during the day and the night.

When Livni left her home at 6 A.M. and declared victory, Mofaz's emotions surged. He felt that an evil hand had conducted a dirty campaign against him. However, for various reasons Mofaz chose to hold back. He sat with his family in his home in Kokhav Yair, finding it difficult to digest what had just been revealed to him. Finding it difficult to digest the gap between the world portrayed by the media and the real world.

Now Mofaz is no longer holding back. As he sits in the study of that same home in Kokhav Yair, he speaks freely and directly in a total and comprehensive manner about the trauma, and about the leadership failures of Tzipi Livni. He talks about the profound rift in Kadima. He talks about the alternative path that he is proposing to Kadima. Fifteen months after Livni beat him, Mofaz is openly and deliberately rising up against her. He is once again beginning a race for the premiership.

Shaul Mofaz, what went wrong? What happened to the great promise and hope of Kadima?

"Kadima was the great hope under Sharon's leadership. Olmert made poor decisions in the Second Lebanon War and grappled with personal problems, but he was able to bridge over all of that with his management skills. In contrast, Tzipi Livni is not demonstrating leadership. She cannot lead a country and she is also unable to lead a movement that was supposed to be a governing movement."

Livni was elected leader of Kadima 15 months ago. Has she succeeded or failed in this role?

"When I was chief of staff, I used to say that someone who makes one strategic mistake cannot fix it even if he makes 100 correct tactical decisions afterward. Livni made not one strategic mistake but two. The first was not establishing a Kadima-led government in September 2008. The second mistake was not joining a unity government in February 2009. Both of these mistakes amount to tremendous missed opportunities. Perhaps even historic ones. They brought Kadima to the very difficult spot in which it now finds itself."

In September 2008, was it really possible to establish a government led by Kadima?

"Once in 60 years comes a chance to establish a government without general elections. If you're a leader who understands the magnitude of the hour and the magnitude of the responsibility, you bring your full weight to bear in order to achieve the goal. You make a decision and you put that decision into effect. I have no doubt that if it had been up to me, I would have formed a government within two weeks. I would have settled things with Shas first of all and then with Labor and I would have ensured the continuity of a centrist government until November 2010. If that had happened, not only Kadima would look different today. The State of Israel would look completely different. But Tzipi Livni thought she knew better. She ignored the Kadima leadership, neglected Shas and followed the campaign advisers who gave her irresponsible advice."

And in February 2009, she should have said yes to Netanyahu?

"I maintained that Kadima should join the coalition with two conditions: leading the peace process and changing the system of government. If after a certain time it was clear that Bibi [Netanyahu] was not going to achieve these two goals, we would go to elections and face the public with clean hands and in an excellent situation. And if Bibi had achieved these vital goals, Israel would have benefited. The country would have been much better off than it is today.

"Unfortunately, Tzipi chose a different way. She placed at the top of her demands not policy, but rotation. Her order of priorities was not country, party, self, but rather self, party, country. Her personal interests took precedence over national and party interests. It was morally irresponsible. And politically, it was a strategic mistake of the highest order. And when a leader makes two huge strategic mistakes within such a short span of time, the result is the crisis that Kadima is in today."

Livni is 'cold and aloof'

What is behind these mistakes you speak of? Is Livni too naive? Too decent? Too steadfast in her principles?

"Livni showed plenty of arrogance. She had to form a government. She had to. By not forming a government, she did great damage to Kadima and real damage to Israel. But what characterized her was a lack of leadership and an inability to grasp the significance of the situation. She didn't foresee the implications and consequences of her decisions. And so she demonstrated a lack of leadership."

You said arrogance. Is Livni an arrogant person?

"Yes. Now she understands that the haughtiness and arrogance hurt her. She's trying to correct it. But it's a matter of character. A person can't easily change her character."

But Livni comes across as a very likable person. An ethical person. A humane person.

"Anyone who knows Livni up close knows that there's something cold and aloof about her. One aspect of leadership is the ability to connect with people. To be a mensch. To have affection for others. And that's something that's not happening there. There is no love of others. When lack of leadership is combined with arrogance and an absence of emotional intelligence, it's highly problematic. It's hard to lead people when you sense that you aren't touching them emotionally."

Could Livni become prime minister?

"In the present reality? It's very problematic."

What qualities is she lacking to be a prime minister?

"She's lacking three main things. She shows a lack of leadership, an inability to make decisions and an inability to communicate with people."

You've said some very harsh things about the chairman of your party.

"When Olmert was in power, Livni thought he wasn't suited to the job. She briefed reporters and held lots of talks with MKs to try to get them to resign or to replace Olmert. She tried to carry out a putsch. I thought about whether to proceed in the same way and I decided against it. I requested a meeting with her, and at the meeting - last Thursday - I told her what I really think. Face to face."

What did you say?

"I told her: You failed. At decisive crossroads, you made poor decisions. You didn't maintain a partnership. You let irresponsible people lead you. The conversation was tough, blunt. I don't think I've ever said such harsh things to anyone. But after having said them directly to Livni, I feel entitled to say them also to MKs and to you and, through you, to the public. It's not like there was a single, random mistake here. There was a series of mistakes that attest to the substance of the matter. I do not envision a situation in which the next time, at the next crossroads, Livni makes the right decision. And within a few months we're liable to find ourselves at the next crossroads. We cannot allow ourselves to make another wrong decision. So what's the solution? Ouster? The Kadima constitution does not permit Kadima members to revolt against their leader."

You touch on an important point. One of Kadima's problems is Livni's personality. The other is its constitution.

"The Kadima constitution is undemocratic. It gives a lot of power to the chairman and makes the processes within Kadima undemocratic. The decision-making method is undemocratic. The combination of the haughty personality with the constitution created an intolerable and undemocratic reality. It's a 'my way or the highway' approach. It's all in my hands, and therefore I'll decide. I can't recall a time when the top Kadima leadership ever gathered in an intimate forum, examined scenarios and made decisions objectively and in cooperation. Even this week, the real consultation was with the 'Ranch Forum' [originally formed by Ariel Sharon]. Livni only briefed the senior Kadima members in short phone calls.

"What I want to see is a primary, and a change to the constitution that would take the whole system out of Livni's hands. As of now, the constitution is undemocratic and the system serves the chairman alone. In my estimation, if there is no primary in the coming months, the result could be the disintegration of Kadima. The disintegration is already starting. [Eli] Aflalo is out and another five or six MKs are having an affair with Likud.

"Ever since I learned of the present move, I tried to prevent it. I think that Livni's leadership problem should be dealt with within the movement, and only afterward should other alternatives be sought. The internal process should lead to a primary. If that doesn't help, there are other possibilities. They will lead to a much deeper split in Kadima."

What you're saying is that if there is no primary, not only a quarter of the faction, but possibly even a third or half of the faction will find themselves on the outside?

"It's possible. I don't think Livni fully recognizes the magnitude of the crisis. The crisis is a lot deeper than what she sees. There is a big rift in the field, between the activists and the voters. The present situation hurts the country and hurts the party. Therefore, a decision really must be made in the next few weeks. It can't wait any longer."

And if there is a primary, will you win? Will you be the new chairman of Kadima?

"I think that the picture is getting clearer. There's a change in the air. Even though Livni controls the system and the budget and therefore the movement, people are wising up. A lot of people now understand what they didn't understand just a little while ago. A lot of people who didn't support me now see that they made a mistake. That includes some MKs, too. It includes a lot of the Kadima senior leadership. People realize that with each passing day our influence on the country is shrinking and the state of the country is worsening. They see what they didn't see in September 2008."

With your permission, I'd like to return to September 17, 2008. Did you feel on that day - and that night - that the election was stolen from you? That victory in Kadima's internal elections was stolen from you?

"I don't know if 'stolen' is the right word. There is a certain adjective for the situation that was created that night and throughout the whole day. I can tell you that I felt that evening that lines were crossed that I never believed would be crossed."

Was the Kadima primary rigged?

"Certainly, definitely. I think the results of the election for the Kadima chairmanship were tilted. And afterward, so was the election for the party's Knesset slate."

What happened in the election for the Knesset slate?

"In the election for the Knesset slate, the result that was there at midnight apparently was not the result by which the MKs were eventually ranked."

Between midnight and 1:30 in the morning, an unseen hand changed the election results?

"Yes. I wasn't involved in it and I'm not familiar with it from close up. But a good number of the MKs who were involved speak about it quite often. This is why Aflalo left Kadima."

In other words, twice in Kadima primaries, the results were tilted?

"Yes."

And how was it rigged against you? What improprieties occurred in the race between you and Livni?

"Before the election, there was a whole story with the Kadima municipal budget. That's a Pandora's box I don't need to open. The system in charge of these processes should investigate itself. A million shekels were distributed disproportionately to council members, to the authorities. People with no potential received [support] beyond their potential because they were Kadima members who were supposed to vote for my side and to support me and their support was shifted to the other side, to Tzipi."

Are you claiming that your people were systematically bought? People who supported you were bought with money?

"That's exactly what I'm saying."

Was this private money or Kadima's money?

"It was public money."

And what happened on Election Day itself?

"In a soccer match, the game is not extended for more than a couple of minutes at most. But in the election for the chairmanship of a movement that was about to establish a government in Israel, a half-hour was added without any relevant justification, except for the desire to shift votes from side to side and prevent people from voting. During this half-hour, a poll was publicized. The poll said that the difference between my supporters and Livni's supporters was 13 to 14 percent. But this poll was a ruse. It never existed. There was no poll, there was no survey, there were no sample polls.

"This [fake poll] was given to one of the television channels and from there it got to the other ones. My people who saw the results of the fake poll ended up not voting. They left the polling stations. I brought 18,000 people to the polls and only 16,500 voted. 1,500 people didn't vote because they were misled."

If the vote had ended as scheduled at 10 P.M., would you have won?

"Yes, definitely. The real result was 44 or 45 percent for me and 40 percent for Livni. The gap was at least 3 or 4 percent in my favor. If the polls had closed at 10 P.M., the result would have been sealed."

What did you think that evening?

"I was very upset."

Did you feel you were the victim of injustice?

"Yes. The feeling that even if you do something you won't be able to fix what has already been done. I was stunned that elections could be tilted by decisions that are not only wrong, but are verging on criminal."

On that day, things were done in Kadima that verged on the criminal?

"Yes, absolutely. I believed that the system in charge of the democratic dimension of the election would do its utmost to ensure that the election proceeded in the most proper fashion. I was mistaken. I found out that in these moments, these momentous moments of the political struggle, moves are made that are dishonest and bordering on criminal."

But the candidate who opposed you ran in the name of a different kind of politics. Her campaign touted her integrity, fairness and ethics.

"One thing I learned is that there's a very large gap between image and reality. I think the ability to market or sell a product to the masses has developed to very worrisome proportions."

Is Tzipi Livni an honest politician?

"There are honest aspects and less honest aspects. In the way the primary was run there was a problem. I really hope it will be exposed one day. It's not an obsession on my part. But I won't forget what happened. It's one of those things that eventually comes out even if it takes a year or two or three. Things will come out in the end. It's only a question of time."

Do you think that Livni was aware of improprieties that were being committed on her behalf?

"I'm very wary of [saying] that. A measure of caution is appropriate. But something happened there. Something very serious happened there."

Mofaz on Mofaz

Shaul Mofaz, are you worthy of being prime minister?

"Yes. We all have nostalgia for the kind of leadership we once had. But when I examine myself compared to the present leadership, the present leadership environment, I think that I am worthy."

Are you essentially already running for prime minister? Do you see yourself reaching that goal in the foreseeable future?

"I've never stopped the race for prime minister. It's a long journey. I don't see it in terms of months, but in terms of years. If there is a primary in Kadima and if I win, I'll lead the party to partnership in a unity government. Unity was a goal of Kadima that Livni did not achieve. Unity is what Israel needs today.

"But not unity for unity's sake. Unity in order to advance the peace process and to change the system of government. Even with Netanyahu, Kadima under my leadership could lead a government that would serve the country's needs and act to advance these two goals. But in the longer term I definitely see myself as prime minister. This objective is realistic. Concrete. I see it happening."

What sort of prime minister would you be?

Tell me a little about the background you're talking about. Where do you come from?

"I was born in Tehran. When I was 9, my family moved to Israel and settled in Eilat. In Iran, my father was a highly respected man, the principal of an ORT school. But the small factory he tried to open in Eilat went bankrupt. My father had to work as a menial laborer for the local council, to water gardens in the desert, in the terrible heat. It was a hard blow. We went from a very good life to living in a one and a half-room apartment, two kids to a bed, my sister and I in the same bed. There were days when there was literally nothing to eat. Sometimes no dinner, sometimes no lunch. But there was never any bitterness, never any whining. My father taught us to cope, to take responsibility. "At age 10 I worked in construction. At age 12 I worked at the port. As a child it was clear to me that I had to help support the family. When I was 14, my father concluded that there was no future for me in Eilat. No livelihood, no education. So he searched for a boarding school for me. And so I went to the agricultural school in Nahalal. If you want to know about the hard moments, that was actually a hard moment. For a whole day we traveled together from Eilat, suitcase in hand. But the hardest part for me was saying goodbye to my father and being left alone. Finding myself in a foreign environment, in a foreign world. Trying to understand what was going on, what the codes were, and seeing right away that not everyone is like you. You're in class with children from Nahalal who are Israelis with real roots in the country. Children of the Valley nobility. These princes who live in the big houses on the big farms of Nahalal, and where do you come from? From nowhere. From Tehran, from Eilat. From a tiny apartment in a housing project.

"But you study, you work hard. You're up at four in the morning to milk the cows. In school at eight. Back to the cowshed in the evening. And you learn that in Nahalal, the supreme test is responsibility. Are you responsible enough to milk, to harvest, to plow, to bring the feed wagon. And you make every effort to meet the test of responsibility. And little by little, you also internalize the Israeliness. Because what you want more than anything is to be Israeli. This is your fondest wish. And therefore it also clear to you that in the army you will go to the Paratroops. Because to serve in the Paratroops and return to Nahalal on Friday with a red beret is to be Israeli. And that's what happens in the end. When I finish a Paratroops course and get my Paratroops wings, I return to Nahalal. And I go with the beret and with the wings to the housemother, to the school principal. I go to my friends who are sons of the Valley. And now I'm just like them. It's as if I, too, am a son of the Valley. I have the full seal of Israeliness."

You're very soldier-like, Shaul Mofaz. As chief of staff, as defense minister and as a politician, you're very much a soldier. I think there's a lot of my father in me. The perseverance, the restraint. A bit of asceticism. My father had a very strong character, but he was also very taciturn. He spoke very little. He also gave me this notion of self-discipline and hard work. But the army enhanced it. What does it mean to be a soldier? Restraint, self-discipline, responsibility. To do everything properly and precisely because you have a responsibility. Because you know that your decisions have meaning. When I tell you that I'm cut out to be prime minister it's because my life's path prepared me for it. I may not always be good at talking and at politics, but I know how to weigh the elements that go into making a decision. That's what I'm good at. I have experience in that. And a record to prove it."

If you become prime minister, you'll be the first Mizrahi prime minister. Do you think the Mizrahi problem is still a problem in our politics? Is there still a wariness toward Mizrahi leaders? Is there an ethnic glass ceiling?

"That's not my feeling. Even when it took me longer to get to certain places, I didn't feel that it was an ethnic issue. Even when what happened in the Kadima primary happened, I didn't think it was an ethnic issue. What influences me very much is not my ethnic background but my social background. Because of my life story and because of the place I come from, I am very sensitive to poverty and social gaps. I'm also not fond of extravagance. Look around. Look how our family lives. We don't smoke, we don't go from one restaurant to another. You won't find us at resorts abroad. There are people who say I'm an ascetic. I don't know if I'm an ascetic. But I bring a different kind of lifestyle, one that's closer to the average. And I bring integrity. And great love for the country. Love for Israel. For Orit and the children and for me, nothing is more magical than hiking in the country. Than living in Israel."

Your image was one of a tough hawk. But then all of a sudden you surprised people with a fairly dovish plan. Are you right or left? Mr. Security or Mr. Peace Process?

"I grew up in a Mapai family. My father was a Mapainik. I wasn't raised on Betar songs or on the gospel of Greater Israel. But insofar as security is concerned, I'm on the right. I think that Israel has an unquestionable right to defend its citizens. I know the limits of force, but I also know that force must be maintained. Therefore I think that Kadima should be a center party or a center-right party. I think that in the past year, Kadima was led too much to the left by Livni.

"At the same time, I also believe in a political compromise that has a territorial price. I'm prepared to pay this price. I look at it as a relay race of different generations of Israelis. And I think that it is my generation's responsibility to pass the torch to the next generation with a different reality. We have two roles: to reach peace agreements and to deal with the social issue. Peace will not come tomorrow, it's a process. But the time has come. Three years, five years. The big decisions will have to be made by the present generation of leadership."

You propose establishing a Palestinian state on about 60 percent of the West Bank. Those are the temporary borders. What comes next?

"In the first stage, the Palestinians will receive a state within temporary borders and Israel will receive defensible borders. We're establishing an eastern border that includes the blocs that are home to 240,000 settlers. In the second stage, the Palestinians will receive territory that is comparable in scope to 1967 but not according to the 1967 borders. The idea is borders and security arrangements first. To create a two-state situation and to create a peace process from which there is no turning back. I believe that if this happens, it will be possible to sketch the permanent borders and to progress toward peace in stages."

Even if you're right, it will be necessary to evacuate 60,000 settlers. If you are prime minister, will you be able to evacuate 60,000 Israelis from their homes?

"I believe that a large portion of the settlers will move of their own accord into the settlement blocs. Therefore I propose that the evacuation-compensation bill be advanced. A lot depends here on the leadership. Leadership that will embrace the people and see to their needs will be able to effect the process, even though it will be painful.

"Basically, I'm very optimistic. Look at our past. For 60 years we've had wars and terror and waves of aliya and lots more. But despite all the difficulties, we always move forward. Israel has never retreated, it has always moved forward. Therefore I believe that we will also succeed in reaching peace. But to do that we need leadership. We need real leadership, not an image of leadership."

'Preservation of hope'

The bureau of the opposition chair issued this response:

"Opposition leader MK Livni decided when she was elected to lead the movement to focus on Kadima's activity and its grappling with issues on the national level, and not to be dragged into personal areas that hurt Kadima. Kadima's decision under Livni's leadership to remain in the opposition as an alternative to the Netanyahu government, despite the desire of some of its members to become members of that government, is a faithful expression of its values and a preservation of hope, at the expense of a "pleasant" crowding into a poor government without the ability to have any real influence on its path. As long as Kadima continues to behave as a party that acts after elections the way it promised to do before elections, it will continue to earn the trust of a majority of the Israeli public and to lead the nation." W