Shaul Mofaz Takes One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

An interview with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, who remains unapologetic about his brief dalliance with Netanyahu, though some observers question his sudden passion for the draft cause.

At midday on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz were still heavily engaged in a spin war. It was being waged in the form of learned conjectures about when national elections would be held, and how the burning issue of the draft would tip the electoral scales. Toward evening, when Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime seemed to be tottering following the assassination of three of the country's security chiefs, and the bodies of Israeli vacationers were being removed from an airport in Bulgaria, both the draft law and the "equality in the burden" slogan had vanished.

It's interesting to think where we would be today, in political-coalition terms, if the "security escalation" had occurred Monday and not two days later. In that case, would vice prime minister and former army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz have detonated the partnership between him and Netanyahu, and exited the government?

I asked Mofaz that question Wednesday evening. He hesitated for a moment before rejecting the scenario. "I would not have linked the two," he said. "With all due regard to events in Syria and Bulgaria, there are issues which are ones of principle in the DNA of the Israeli public. I am committed to the cause of an equal sharing of the burden. Once I understood that the prime minister did not intend to bring about a historic change, as he promised, I drew the necessary conclusions. That is what I would have done in any case."

"Since when has the universal draft become his banner?" wondered Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich. "The subject has never interested him. He did not say a word about it in the primary against Tzipi Livni. He didn't say a word about it after being elected Kadima chairman and promising [in an interview to this reporter] to lead the social protest movement. He didn't say a word about it when he was defense minister. His current behavior is characteristic of politicians who are incapable of creating an agenda, but wait for the agenda to speed by so they can grab its coattails."

As this was being written, on Thursday morning, Yacimovich was still the leader of the opposition; she was scheduled later in the day to hand that title back to Mofaz (72 days after succeeding him as opposition leader ). For her part, she has decided on a strategy shift: Henceforth she will target Netanyahu and Likud, in order to show the skeptics that, yes, she really is a candidate for prime minister.

The first sign of that change came in a press conference that Yacimovich held Wednesday, the day after Mofaz's announcement that he and Kadima were leaving the coalition. She dealt not with the "leaver" but the "leavee": Netanyahu.

"Netanyahu lives from one news bulletin to the next, from one spin to the next. Benjamin Netanyahu has a vision and its name is Benjamin Netanyahu," she said, and then called to him - like a mother calling her child to come home - "Bibi! Come to elections on November 27!"

Maybe she took to heart the criticism leveled at her about some sort of secret, latent alliance that exists between her and Netanyahu. An alliance that, until now, spared the prime minister her sharp tongue.

A natural choice

"We have an agenda," Mofaz said Wednesday evening, as most Israelis were watching the images broadcast from Burgas Airport. "We identify with the issue that unites the overwhelming majority in Israel." I asked Mofaz whether, in retrospect, he regrets his short-term adventure in Netanyahu's coalition.

"Absolutely not," Mofaz said. "When we went in, we declared that if no historic change occurred regarding the Tal Law [on exempting yeshiva students from the draft], we would not stay on. We took no ministerial portfolios. We did not create the impression that we were interested in enjoying the benefits of being in government at any price. We said that the issue of the draft was the first test, and that if we did not push it through, we would not continue. That is what we did."

What went wrong? On May 7 you met with Netanyahu for hours and at night you signed a coalition agreement. Didn't the two of you clarify things? Didn't you go deeply into the question of a loaded issue like army service for the ultra-Orthodox? Did Netanyahu already deceive you then, or did you feel regret as the finishing line approached?

"With caution I say that in the talks between us, my impression was that he was moving in the right direction. Afterward, too, he heard about the emerging direction of the Plesner Committee [which was appointed to formulate a replacement law on the Haredi draft]. Then, members of his Knesset faction, and also apparently the Haredim, went to see him. In the end, when it came to implementation, he backedtracked and reneged on all the principles he had adopted a week before."

When did you realize he would not go along with you?

"I started having doubts last Tuesday night, when I spoke to him by phone. Suddenly he started to raise issues which I thought we had agreed on. Like the detailed proposal about deciding [on army service], which we wanted to put to a vote in the cabinet along with the bill itself. Or the criminal sanction which would be applied to evaders. People alleged that we wanted to put yeshiva students in jail. That is simply not so. At the end of the road, after 10 years, a criminal sanction was also mentioned." [Plesner had recommended that yeshiva students be able to defer service for a number of years without facing sanctions.]

In the end, I said to Mofaz, Livni was right. In her three-and-a-half years as leader of Kadima, she said Netanyahu will always opt for his so-called natural partners. You learned that the hard way, I told Mofaz. He did not like the comparison.

"The difference between me and Livni is that I decided and I also tried," he replied angrily. "Both the decision and the attempt are worth more than talk. Moreover, if we had entered the coalition at the start - three-and-a-half years ago - as I suggested, with a large political force equal to that of Likud, we could have done great things. If we had seen that it was beyond us, we would have left after a year and a half. At least we would have tried."

People in Livni's circle recalled the talks she held with Netanyahu about the possibility of Kadima entering the coalition. There were at least three serious meetings on the subject: one after the elections in February 2009; another after the end of the building freeze in the territories, in September 2010; and the third after the political debacle suffered by Israel following the May 2010 Gaza flotilla raid.

Netanyahu always said the expected thing. For example: "I really think we need to see how we can make progress on the political issue [with the Palestinians]. The situation cannot remain as it is." Or, "the political stalemate is hurting us. Events in the Middle East happen at the strategic level."

Livni would say something like, "Excellent, I am with you on this. Let's see how we can move ahead from here." But Netanyahu would immediately backtrack: "I have to check with my partners to see what they think." Livni would realize that he was not serious.

It's only conjecture, but it is possible that, if on May 7 Mofaz had engaged Netanyahu in a truly in-depth conversation about the draft and got into discussions of actual resolutions with him - he would have realized that Netanyahu will always, but always, choose his natural partners. Or maybe - and this too is only conjecture - Mofaz did not want to know the truth.

A giant leap

Two political surveys commissioned by people with vested interests (and carried out by a serious polling institute ) examined the implications of Tzipi Livni joining up with Shelly Yacimovich. In one survey, the Yacimovich-Livni duo won 24 Knesset seats and in the other 27-28 seats - the same as the forecast for Likud. With Likud potentially no longer the largest party, 10 to 12 seats ahead of its nearest rival, the premiership would no longer be in Netanyahu's pocket.

The same surveys also examined the option of Livni hooking up with Yair Lapid, the former television personality-turned-politico. One survey gave them 15 seats, the other 19. One survey even went so far as to ask how many seats a center-left party led by Lapid, Yacimovich and Livni would garner. The answer: 40. That number accurately reflects the size of the center-left bloc, without Meretz and the Arab parties. In the last elections, Labor and Kadima won a combined 41 seats - 13 and 28, respectively. Almost without exception, that number has remained static in all surveys.

Though the possibility of cooperation between Labor, Lapid and Livni is nonexistent, other than in Netanyahu's nightmares, the Livni-Yacimovich scenario is definitely worth considering. It's an almost perfect combo. Livni brings her political and government experience; Yacimovich the social-economic agenda. Livni represents the political mainstream, Yacimovich the ideological momentum and the recent experience of being in the opposition. They have shared rivals: Netanyahu on one side, Ehud Olmert on the other. At bottom, they are not truly divided over any issue.

True, it's hard to imagine Livni, who is innately Betar (Revisionist ), joining the Labor Party. On the other hand, she has already come a long way, personally, from right to left. So what is another small step for Livni will be a giant leap for the Israeli society - if it's proved that this is what's needed to oust Netanyahu and the right from power.


One of the members of the ministerial forum of eight spoke early this week about the Iranian issue - before the attack in Bulgaria. Using moderate, nonmilitant language, the minister described the situation as he sees it. What follows is a free compilation from his remarks. "The Americans are coming here in order to persuade us not to attack before the presidential elections in November. They are imploring us ... telling us about how they are redeploying forces and aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf ahead of a possible strike by them against Iran. Do I believe them? No.

"What will happen if Mitt Romney is elected president? Will the United States attack? I am far from certain. Romney will want a year, more or less, to study the arena. You don't get elected and then immediately attack. I'm not sure we have that year.

"It's true that lately there is much less talk about the Iranian issue. But that doesn't mean we are not following developments. In fact, the events there are monitored on a day-to-day basis. It's very complex. There are different clocks that are moving ahead at a different pace. What they are developing, and where; what is moving ahead fast and what has been stopped, because of a worm of one kind or another; the state of the sanctions, how painful they are; the situation of the Iranian economy - and could the steep deterioration of the Iranian currency destabilize the government and bring people into the streets? Is 2012 the year of decision [as Ehud Barak often said]? I don't know. Every year is the year of decision."

The secret seven

The meeting of the Likud Knesset faction on Monday opened, as usual, with a declaration to the media by the prime minister. Netanyahu referred to the Tal Law. "There are several agreements, including increasing targets [for the draft] and the imposition of personal sanctions [against draft dodgers]. There are also a few gaps. I hope that with joint work we will be able to overcome them in the next few days."

As he spoke, Netanyahu already knew Mofaz was on his way out. Why did he choose to present a rosy and false picture? The apparent explanation: This was the start of the battle for the public's consciousness. Netanyahu wanted to fire the first volley.

The covert explanation is more interesting. As Netanyahu spoke, his emissaries were trying to induce seven MKs from Kadima to bolt their party and join the coalition. Four or five said they would do it. According to reliable political sources, Netanyahu needed another two days for his people to snatch two more MKs to reach the requisite number of seven.

That information reached the office of Kadima's leader at the last moment. Mofaz convened the faction quickly and pushed through a decision to leave the coalition by a large majority, 24 in favor and three against. The split was averted. We will soon know if it was thwarted or only postponed until after the summer break.