How Shaul Mofaz Became the Israeli George Costanza

As the Knesset's biggest party heads for the garbage heap of history, this former general can do nothing but ponder where he went wrong.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

"Politics is shit!," states the gravel-voiced narrator of Kadima's latest campaign ad, which was uploaded to YouTube in December. "No area is as thankless and dirty," he continues, spitting his words out rather than articulating them, his delivery almost as artificial as his faux-Persian accent – an obvious, rather pitiful bid to win votes among the disaffected, non-Ashkenazi community.

"In politics, if you make one mistake then all the credit you've earned evaporates in seconds," the narrator continues, as weird kinetic typography – dancing words - appears on the screen, vaguely reminiscent of brainwashing scenes in B-movies.

You sit there and wonder, could this really be a campaign ad? "What kind of idiot would try getting elected by claiming his job is a bad word and insulting the entire voting public?" you mentally expostulate. Who's the moron who thought this was a good idea? You wonder, and then the unnamed, unseen narrator finally gets to the point: "There's a trend these days of stepping all over Shaul Mofaz."

"Who are you to step on Shaul Mofaz?" the narrator asks. And really, who are we? It seems strange for a politician careening dangerously close to the edge of obscurity like Mofaz, to do something as inane as reach out to potential voters only to say, basically: "Go to the devil, who are you to judge me?"

Soldier astray

But Mofaz, it bears noting, is not and was never a politician, though he finds himself the head of the biggest faction in Knesset, Kadima. He was a general; a soldier who strayed into politics because in Israel it is what's expected of you once leaving the pinnacle of the military elite.

He seems to have little more ability to comprehend the world of politics than a rabbit would have in synchronized swimming. This inability is exemplified by Kadima teetering on the verge of spectacular failure. The party Mofaz heads seems poised to decline from the biggest faction in parliament to oblivion on January 22. Polls predict a stunning fall from 28 seats in the current Knesset to zero, maybe two in the next one.

But Mofaz has his stellar military record, and in the crazy world of Israeli politics that will get one far. Almost to the top. Almost being the key word.

Nests of snakes

"The man entered politics, the most crooked field there is, in order to bring values to this broken country," the narrator charges, overacting so much he's practically chewing the scenery. "So what are you criticizing him for? That he doesn't know how to play dirty and come out clean? That he flip-flops because a nest of snakes spit poison at his back?"

Mofaz entered politics as Ariel Sharon's minister of defense in 2002, shortly after retiring from the army. He retained that position and his Likud membership until 2006, when Sharon left the Likud to form Kadima and asked him to join.

He didn't, not immediately at least. He stayed in Likud and even campaigned to become its leader, while admonishing Sharon for leaving his "home."

That didn't last long. Within days, as opinion polls showed him losing his bid for the Likud leadership, he joined Kadima, citing "growing extremism" within his party as his reason.

"This man did not zigzag when his country's security was at stake. He didn't even blink. The man killed terrorists at zero range," the narrator tells us, while images of Mofaz in uniform are shown on screen. "And all that for what," he asks, "so that little people of lower character can say he's pathetic?"

From Shahram Mofazzaka to Israel's hard-line he-man

It's funny to think of it now, but before entering politics, Mofaz, who was born Shahram Mofazzaka in Tehran in 1948 and emigrated to Israel with his family in 1957, was considered a sort of superman.

Like most Israelis, Mofaz was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces at 18. He took part in the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and the first Lebanon war in 1982. During his distinguished military career, he commanded the Paratroopers Brigade, served as IDF Commander in the West Bank and Commander of the Southern Command until becoming IDF Chief of Staff in 1998.

He led the army throughout during one of the most dangerous periods in Israel's history, the Second Intifada, a tumultuous period that included controversial acts such as the demolition of thousands of Palestinian homes, the assault on Jenin and the death of American activist Rachel Corrie.

Mofaz became known for tough methods, including razing the homes of suicide bombers families and targeted killings. He led a hardline approach that rejected compromise with Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

In March 2002 he commanded Operation Defensive Shield, the biggest military operation during the Intifada, which ultimately resulted in 250 Palestinian deaths, battle in Jenin and hundreds of arrests.

One man's enemy, another man's hit song

Leftwingers and Palestinians want him prosecuted for war crimes. But while they want his head on a platter, his tough guy, trigger-happy image made him immensely popular. The Israeli rock outfit The Biluim even wrote a hit song about him, entitled "Shaul Mofaz" which basically consists of shouting his name over and over again.

As soldier, he executed the policy of targeted killings, led structural reforms of the army and prepared it for Arik Sharon's unilateral disengagement from Gaza, which he supported full-heartedly. But he only truly became a politician when he defected to Kadima with Sharon.

"People in Israel prefer candidates more suited for 'meet the press', not meet reality," whines the campaign clip narrator. But one can't help but think that the entirety of Mofaz's political career has been one long break from reality.

He finally reached Knesset in 2006, only to lose the prestigious post of defense minister. He had to settle for the junior role of minister of transportation. The Defense Ministry went to then-Labor leader Amir Peretz, a union firebrand with no substantial military background. Mofaz was outraged, but learned lesson No. 1 in politics: it has nothing to do with merit.

Silent but deadly no more

On August 2008, Mofaz officially made his head first dive into the adult pool, declaring his intention of running for leadership of Kadima, following Ehud Olmert's resignation. After years as minister, he now wanted more from politics: he wanted to be a leader. A somebody. For this purpose he even received a blessing from Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, perhaps forgetting that he was running for the leadership of a party whose entire voter basis was composed of people who abhor Yosef.

He lost the Kadima party primary to Tzipi Livni by a narrow margin of 431 votes.

"Who else is qualified to serve as minister of defense in this crazy country? Who?," asks the narrator in Kadima's ad, his quasi-Persian accent all too like a bad impersonation of Mofaz's own accent. The clip then shows images of rival politicians Shelly Yacimovich, Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman while the narrator spits out their names in disgust. He sounds like nobody so much as Moe Szyslak, the cartoon tavern proprietor and bartender in The Simpsons, whenever Moe spots someone happy at his bar.

Mofaz begrudgingly accepted losing to Livni. But then she effectively lost the national election. Kadima was the biggest faction in Knesset, but Livni was unable to form a coalition. Mofaz found himself, for the first time in his political life, in the opposition (he had supported joining Netanyahu's coalition).

Mofaz became Livni's bitter challenger, assembling a large, impressive camp of, well, nobodies who had filled Kadima's Knesset seats from back when Sharon first needed some opportunists to break free of the Likud. Mofaz attacked Livni continually, slamming her for her weak performance.

"She is demonstrating a form of leadership without leading," he sneered to Haaretz in March 2010, adding that Livni was "arrogant' and "condescending."

In March 2012, he ran again for the party's leadership. His was no-holds-barred; perhaps he felt it was his last chance to make his mark.

In startling contrast to the polls, he won. And he won big, with a surprisingly wide margin.

His victory would soon turn out to be a Pyrrhic one. Livni announced her "retirement" from politics, a retirement that lasted less than a year, and thereby destroyed any credibility Mofaz might have had as leader – and he had none.

The media and the public, he would soon find out, loved him as the gever-gever, the silent, deadly army man who speaks little but gets the job done. They would come to mock him and deride him as a politician, a job that entails a whole lot of speaking.

And Mofaz, as even he would admit, is not a great speaker.

"It's sad to think this is the country I live in. It's sad that in order to get the power to change things in Israel you have to look good and speak well," says the now tired narrator of Kadima's Hail Mary ad.

Where appearance is king

Mofaz, everyone would soon find out, was ill equipped for a world where media appearances mean everything. He didn't say the right things and what little he had to say he did not say very well. And he made really, really, preposterously ill-thought moves.

Shortly after winning the primaries, in March 2012, he declared himself the "leader" of the social-protest movement, swearing to lead the protests until Netanyahu was no more. His strange announcement was mocked far and wide, by media, protesters, and his fellow politicos. Nor did he ever follow up on his promise to serve as a fighting opposition.

Instead, two months after declaring war on Netanyahu, Mofaz made the biggest mistake of his life, burying whatever was left of his leadership: he joined Netanyahu's government.

In a stunning, shockingly idiotic move in hindsight, Kadima surprised just about everyone and joined the Likud's coalition, forming one of Israel's biggest governments – moments before the Knesset was about to vote to disperse.

His decision to join Netanyahu seems to have surprised even Mofaz himself. Just the day before he'd savaged Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich for allegedly conspiring to join Netanyahu's government herself.

Mofaz's move served the immediate interests of two people: Netanyahu, who supported early elections and then freaked out when early polls suggested he might lose; and Mofaz, who polls predicted a sorry showing in elections. But in the longer term, it served only Netanyahu. He got to be on Time Magazine's cover, with the title "King Bibi" next to his smiling image, while Mofaz remained in the position of court jester and minister without portfolio.

Their union didn't last very long. Within two months, Mofaz had bolted the government.

His official reason was the government's non-action on drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews. The unofficial reason was that his decision to join Netanyahu blew up in his face. It put off his party's demise – but if anything, Kadima today is in worse shape than ever before. It may not make into the next Knesset at all.
To make matters worse, his arch-nemesis, Tzipi Livni, returned to the scene fresh from "retirement," founded a new party and took a third of Kadima, his party, with her. She'd waited on the sidelines, endlessly debating with confidantes and the media whether she should re-enter politics, and finally did just that when Netanyahu decided on early elections.

Instead of challenging Mofaz in Kadima, Livni founded Hatnuah ("the movement"). In December, Hatnuah took 7 defectors and future-nobodies from Mofaz's Kadima.

Kadima is vanishing and Livni's Movement is polling around 10 seats, having poached her backers from Kadima. Despite his best effort, Mofaz could never persuade them that he was anything more than a political buffoon.

Now, on the eve of his political hereafter, Mofaz is bitter, and angry. He had it all: the popularity, the votes, the prestige. Then he lost it, unfairly in his eyes.

In his view, he was treated unfairly by the media and the public from the get-go - because of his background, because of his lack of media savvy, because of his Persian accent and because he came from a poor family. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth like Netanyahu or Livni.

Mofaz is an honest man, he claims, a simple man who came from nowhere and made something of himself. He dedicated four decades of his life to public service while maintaining a modest lifestyle, unlike politicians who hobnob with the rich and famous in fancy parties held in Tel Aviv.

Well and good. But in politics modesty is often of little consequence.

From being the Israeli version of Chuck Norris, he's become an Israeli version of George Costanza, or Terry Malloy, Marlon Brando's character from On the Waterfront. Like Malloy, Mofaz coulda been a contender. A somebody. But he made all the wrong decisions. He blew his best shot.

"That you are – kind of – the only politician that has not gotten himself dirtied with business tycoons? That doesn’t count," extols the narrator of Kadima's latest attempt to revive itself. Kadima's fall has been so dramatic that it doesn't even register in some of the polls

"People can't separate the man from the politician, but I can," says the fake-Persian narrator. "On January 22nd I am going to do the untrendiest thing there is and vote for the straight man behind the crooked politician: Shaul Mofaz ." The way it looks now, he'll be the only one.

Shaul Mofaz kicks off Kadima's 2013 election campaign. Slogan: 'Bibi will get us in trouble.'Credit: Nir Kafri
'My name is George Costanza. I'm unemployed and I live with my parents.'Credit: Wikicommons

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