ANALYSIS / Can Kadima Survive With Shaul Mofaz as PM?

Mofaz may have enough to form a government, but will Livni and Bar-On quit the party if he wins?

Every election campaign, be it primary or general, has a defining moment - one event or statement that will make it memorable. Until Sunday, that moment was when Ehud Barak semi-chauvinistically called Tzipi Livni by her full first name, Tzipora, to demonstrate her unsuitability for picking up that red phone at 3 A.M.

Since then, Tzipora has encountered another serious contender for the defining-moment slot: the 43.7 percent, decimal and all, by which Kadima chairman hopeful Shaul Mofaz predicts he will win the party primary. Judging by Mofaz's self-confidence on Sunday, we can be excused for wanting to wrap things up and go home after handing him the title. Let us dispense already with the tiresome procedure of setting up ballot boxes, counting votes, and having Arab constituents vote en bloc.

If Mofaz loses by as little as 5 percent - rather than by 15 percent, as polls currently suggest - then that 43.7 percent figure will haunt him for long and frustrating years in politics. Former political figure Yitzhak Moday had to wait a long time before he could stop being haunted by his statement that he has 90 percent of the skills necessary to be foreign minister. For better and for worse, numbers speak to us.

And so if the day after Tuesday Mofaz does turn out to be dead on, not only would he become Kadima's next chairman and Israel's prime minister, but he would also be considered a prophet or a sage, revered by pollsters and campaigners all over the world.

Mofaz is emitting a somewhat ambiguous signal. On the one hand, he's demonstrating the calm and ease of an experienced army officer who has had his fair share of nerve-racking trials in his life. On the other hand, he is also revealing fear and nervousness by letting out the sectarian genie, which pertains to the feeling of Sephardi Jews that they are discriminated against by the Ashkenazi elite. The sectarian genie is being hauled back onstage because of some anonymous statement by someone from Tzipi Livni's campaign who said Mofaz is the "hoodlums' favorite candidate." What good will that do? Send another fraction of a point Mofaz's way?

In the end, it's all about the voter turnout. It is generally believed that low voter turnout will serve Mofaz and his well-organized voter troops. A high voter turnout will presumably help Livni, who is backed by scattered individual voters.

It was voter turnout that helped Amir Peretz beat Shimon Peres in the November 2005 Labor primary. The Histadrut labor federation worked hard on Election Day, while the Peres campaign tucked themselves in with the latest polls and went to bed.

But headline-grabbing comments are not the sole property of Mofaz or Barak.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama recently told talk-show host David Letterman that this was silly season in American politics - and the same goes for Israeli politics. No one understands this better than MK Isaac Ben-Israel (Kadima), a brigadier general in the reserves whom political analysts refer to as "Tzipi's security guy."

At a small event in Be'er Sheva on Saturday night, Ben-Israel revealed the ultimate secret, calling Barak "the worst defense minister in Israeli history." It seems this retired expert in advanced weapons and military technology was not aware that Be'er Sheva has a microphone or two in it, and even that when you say something all the way down there, it can still leak northward.

In Mofaz's press conference on Sunday, meanwhile, he did more than herald the results of the upcoming election. He told voters he was keeping his ability to form a government in his back pocket. In other words, he told Kadima members that if they chose him, they would get to keep roaming the corridors of power just the way they like it.

And Mofaz may well have enough supporters to form a government. The only question is whether he will have a party if he beats Livni. She and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On say if Mofaz wins, Kadima will no longer be their party. Time will tell what, if anything, they're going to do about it.