After Livni, It's Mofaz's Turn at the Helm of Kadima

Shaul Mofaz correctly predicted that he was going to win big in the Kadima primary. Now he is setting his sights on ‘delivering the party message,’ and promises to lead the social protest should it be revived.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

A month ago, Shaul Mofaz told someone: “You’ll see, this is going to be a double-digit victory. Maybe 20 percent. First, because we’ll win again in the places where we won last time. Second, in places where we lost during the last primary, the gaps will be significantly reduced. Third, this time we’ll win in some polling stations where we lost last time.”

An hour before the precincts closed on Tuesday evening, Mofaz’s campaign staff gathered to summarize the events of the Kadima primary. The aides had canvassed all 197 of the party’s polling stations and relayed their findings: a 9-percent lead for Mofaz. “You’re mistaken,” he responded. “This is going to be double that, at least.”

Credit: Amos Biderman

In the end, he won by a 25-percent majority. A decisive victory.

After three-and-a-half years of frustration, following the last party leadership election of September 2008, when victory was (in his view ) unfairly snatched from him, Mofaz conducted a flawlessly efficient almost military campaign. It was an “old-school” sort of effort involving aides who made the rounds, local political bosses and influential community leaders.

Tzipi Livni chose not to rely on the same players, but was unable to do what Labor’s head, Shelly Yachimovich, pulled off during her campaign for the Labor chairmanship: create an alternative network of volunteer workers, youths and older persons, in lieu of a more entrenched political framework.

In the general election of 2009, Livni led Kadima to a significant electoral achievement. The party maintained its place as the largest faction in the Knesset, with 28 mandates. During the last year, however, Livni was cut down to size in a series of contexts among the wider public, in her party and within her own camp in Kadima. Some of the most conspicuous figures in Livni’s camp maintained constant contact with Mofaz, assuring him that he had nothing to fear about the day after the primary: They would drift into his camp.

Dalia Itzik was the only party MK who didn’t evince support publicly for either of the candidates. On election eve, she rushed to stand alongside the winner even before Mofaz officially invited her to join his faction. During the unruly celebration staged at the party’s headquarters in Petah Tikva, she appeared flamboyantly on the stage, to the left of Mofaz (to his right stood his wife, Orit ). Itzik looked deliriously happy, as though she had actually done something to assist Mofaz’s victory.

On the evening of her defeat, Livni summoned MKs in her camp to private meetings in her South Tel Aviv campaign headquarters. She asked them all the same question: “What do you intend to do now?” The answers clarified for Livni where she stood. She left headquarters at about 1 A.M., drove to her Ramat

Hahayal home in north Tel Aviv and went to sleep.

The previous evening, Livni posted a paraphrase of a line from the Edith Piaf song on her Facebook page: “No, I have no regrets for anything, and I am sorry for nothing.”

But Livni does have something to regret, even if this became clear only in hindsight. In a draft coalition agreement formulated during negotiations in March 2009, following that year’s Knesset election, Gideon Sa’ar (Likud ) and Tzachi Hanegbi (Kadima ) agreed that in March 2012 three years after the establishment of a new government (and exactly now ) a rotation would be carried out between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Meaning Netanyahu was to become foreign minister, and she would take the reins as premier. Netanyahu was prepared to sign on the dotted line, but Livni refused.

Via Sa’ar, she submitted two conditions to Netanyahu, with the demand that at least one be met: the rotation would have to occur in the middle of the term (that is, two years and four months after the establishment of a government ); and Netanyahu should not ally with either one of two of his presumed coalition partners, the ultra-Orthodox parties or Yisrael Beiteinu.

Netanyahu rejected the two demands. Livni announced that she was remaining in the opposition.

Shaul Mofaz has been in politics for about 10 years. A cold person, he rarely smiles. Yet people close to him insist that he is a modest man, a good listener, curious. They say he is cordial and systematic in his approach to dealing with issues.

Mofaz was defense minister under Ariel Sharon for a few years, and Sharon used to say that “when Shaul enters an army base, the soldiers straighten out their uniforms.”

Very few people know that Mofaz served as Yonatan Netanyahu’s deputy during the Entebbe rescue operation, in 1976. He had been deputy commander of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit for the preceding 18 months.

“Yoni flew to Entebbe on the No. 1 plane,”

Mofaz once recalled. “I was in the No. 2 plane. In briefings given before the operation, I learned that he intended to lead the unit that raided the area where the hostages were held. I told him: Listen, that’s not your duty. You are the unit’s commander. You need to keep to the rear, to see how the thing unfolds and to run the operation. He told me: ‘This is a rare opportunity to lead my soldiers into battle. To be at the front.’ He landed three minutes before I did. After we landed and traveled in the direction of the terminal, we heard gunshots and knew we had to move fast. When we reached the terminal, I heard that Yoni had been wounded. We silenced the [terrorists and Ugandan soldiers]; later we had to calm down the hostages. Dan Shomron and I were the last people to leave Entebbe. Yoni was brought to the plane that carried the hostages. I was in the other plane. I knew only that he was badly wounded.”

Netanyahu at a 199 memorial serive for his brother, YoniCredit: Flash 90

After the shivah, the bereaved father, Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, asked Mofaz to take him to places where Yoni had trained or gone on furloughs.

“He wanted to re-live Yoni’s life,” Mofaz related. “For a month and a half, we traveled together throughout the country. He stayed at the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya. I would pick him up and we would travel everywhere. He recorded everything.”

On Wednesday, I asked Mofaz about his relations with the elder Netanyahu, who celebrated his 102nd birthday this week. There was no point in asking him about his relations with Yoni’s brother, the prime minister.

“My relations with [Benzion] are excellent. I meet with him mostly at annual memorial services for Yoni. Until recently, I would be invited to speak at the ceremony,” Mofaz said, dryly. He didn’t elaborate.

Branded an opportunist

At first glance, Mofaz has in his repertoire all the traits an Israeli politician would want: a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and defense minister, a Mizrahi Jew who experienced immigration and poverty in his childhood, and fought tooth and nail to succeed to climb the army ladder and then get into politics.

Two moves in this political career irreversibly branded Mofaz an opportunist: He was a latecomer when he left Likud to join Kadima, after he had declared “you never leave your home.” And his “time-out” from politics, after losing the last chairmanship race to Livni. That time-out lasted just a few days.

Results of a Dialog survey, supervised by Prof. Camil Fuchs, were publicized by Channel 10 on Wednesday, and projected just 15 Knesset seats for a Mofaz-led Kadima party. Generally, surveys held in the immediate aftermath of such a primaries victory are more flattering to a new party leader.

Kadima is projected as losing about half of its Knesset seats, and your public image is not the greatest. How do you intend to change things?

Mofaz: “I will deliver Kadima’s message, in a clear, persuasive way. I have plans. We will establish work groups and hold meetings, and will hold a party convention in two months. I had a group that I called the

B team, which prepared a detailed work plan for the first 100 days [after I became party chair]. We will focus on political reform, on socioeconomic issues. Should the protest movement come alive again this summer, and should Netanyahu try, as usual, to sweep it under the rug, it will spark an unparalleled wave of protests, and I will lead it. I will lead the sane, democratic, liberal public most of the people who are looking for a leader. I will be that leader. The first thing I will do when the Knesset summer session begins in May is submit an alternative to the Tal [draft exemption] Law.”

Your position on Iran differs from [Ehud] Barak and Netanyahu’s. Now that you head the opposition, your stance will have weight.

“That’s correct. Netanyahu is manipulatively exploiting the Iranian nuclear threat for political reasons. This is an existential threat, but the Americans have to lead a global struggle. I believe Israel must keep all possible options in hand, and the military option has to be the last option resorted to, and the United States has to lead it ... Should a situation arise in which it does not act, and the Iranians are on the brink of going nuclear, and there is a need to carry out a military operation I will stand alongside the prime minister and will do everything I can to help him. But we are far from such a situation at least two years away. Netanyahu’s irresponsible statements implying that something has to be done within a few months create a bad reality.”

Would you consider joining a government should that situation arise?

“No, Kadima under my leadership will remain in the opposition. The current government represents all that is wrong with Israel, I believe. Why should we join it? We will be a responsible opposition. Anything Netanyahu does for the benefit of Israel’s future will find our support. I want to restore an ethic of nonpartisan patriotism to Israel. I want to represent something new, like we had in the past.”

Can you clarify?

“Once, there were values of public spiritedness and nonpartisan patriotism in the country. I miss that Israel.”

Mofaz intends to continue to serve as chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for the next two months. This has never happened before: the head of the opposition serving as head of this prestigious committee. I asked him whether he will propose to Netanyahu, during his upcoming meeting as opposition leader with the prime minister, to set a date for early elections. He replied: “Elections are a complex matter. It’s not a matter that can be worked out in one meeting. I think they will be at the end of 2012, or early the following year.”

Will you offer Livni the No. 2 spot on Kadima’s Knesset list? Do you think she will remain in the party?

“I want her with me; whatever I tell her will remain between us. I can’t guess what she’ll do. The fact is that she refused to say whether she would remain in the party if she lost the election, whereas I declared I would stay under such a scenario of defeat.”

Should Livni quit the party, will that cause significant damage to Kadima?

“Everyone can be replaced.”

Olmert’s political home

Kadima member and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spent last week in Washington. He gave the keynote speech at a conference held by the J Street advocacy organization. Had he been in Israel, he would have voted for Mofaz. During his speech,

Olmert declared that Kadima remains his political home, and he wished it well. “This is my party,” said the former prime minister.

An Israeli who attended the conference said that Olmert’s enthused declaration of support for Kadima sounded strange considering he has been advising and assisting Yair Lapid in the establishment of his new party, a party that, according to polls, has already eroded a portion of Kadima’s support. I referred this question to Yaakov Galanti, an Olmert adviser.

“The connection between Olmert and Yair is informal and friendly, and it stems from Olmert’s relationship with Lapid’s late

father,” Galanti explained. “This is not a political alliance. Olmert consistently emphasizes that he is a Kadima member and supporter.”

Apart from his speech, while he was in Washington, Olmert held a number of meetings with academics, commentators and politicians from America’s two leading parties. Everyone spoke about how Americans have lost patience for Netanyahu, and about the fear, based on polling conducted in

Israel, that Netanyahu will be reelected, and form a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition.

Olmert said: “I know the polls, but I don’t think anyone should make assumptions.

A scenario could arise in which a center-left bloc receives 60 mandates, and stops Netanyahu from forming a right-wing coalition.”

Olmert provided a detailed forecast in these meetings, listing a tally for center-left parties as follows: 15-16 Knesset seats for Kadima, 13-14 for Labor, 9-10 for Yair Lapid, 6-7 for a party led by Aryeh Deri, and 4-5 for Meretz, along with 10-11 mandates for the Arab parties. All told, the figure hovers around 60 MKs. In such a scenario, Olmert believes, the center-left could forestall formation of a right-wing government, and force Netanyahu to establish a moderate coalition, including Kadima, Lapid and Deri. Such a government would compel Netanyahu to engage with the Palestinians in peace talks.

Yet, two recent polls confer just 55 mandates, at most, to the left-center parties. Under any scenario, Netanyahu would remain prime minister. Also, Olmert’s scenario seems overly optimistic regarding his friend, former Shas chair Deri. Polling shows him winning only 2-3 mandates in an election.



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