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Shaul Mofaz, New Head of Israel’s Largest Party

And why Likud leader, Netanyahu, is likely to see gains in next elections

Marc Tracy
March 28, 2012
Shaul Mofaz today.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Shaul Mofaz today.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Congratulations to Shaul Mofaz, who has already worn the hats of IDF chief of staff, deputy prime minister, and defense minister, and is now the chairman of the Kadima Party and putative leader of the opposition. And sorry to Tzipi Livni, who was defeated yesterday by a significant margin, roughly 62-38 percent, in a party leadership vote in which fewer than 50 percent of members participated.

“Everyone thought he was going to win, but not by that much,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Those people who voted for Mofaz are hoping that his résumé as a chief of staff and defense minister will give him the security credentials needed to tell the Israeli people—which is the one thing they want to hear—that if they yield land to the Palestinians, it’s safe.” The last meaningful (if private) Israeli-Palestinian negotiations took place with a Kadima prime minister, Ehud Olmert.

What happens next? We don’t know, which is where it gets exciting. “From what I understood from Likud people, they felt that Mofaz, being a Sephardic general”—he was born in Tehran, and in Israel, Persians tend to get lumped together with Sephardim—“actually took more voters away from Likud than Livni did. They were more nervous,” Makovsky told me. “At the same time, they might also hope that in this set of circumstances, Mofaz could be enticed to join the government.” He added, “But I think it’s too late. Most people think there’s gonna be elections next spring at the latest, and to join the government now would not position Kadima as an alternative.”

General consensus: whenever elections are held, sometime in the next year, Likud is likely to improve on its past performance, and Prime Minister Netanyahu will almost certainly wind up prime minister for another several years. Although, cautioned Makovsky, “In Israeli politics, they like to say: ‘A week is an eternity.’”

So who is Mofaz? Like Livni, he is a former Likud minister. Noam Sheizaf notes that stylistically Livni, more than Mofaz, is in the Ariel Sharon mode, meaning “we are now officially in the Netanyahu decade.” Mofaz’s Mizrahi identity is a wild card: it might be the best avenue for him to cause trouble for Netanyahu’s coalition, by courting the ultra-religious Shas party. (Eli Yishai, Shas’ head and a minister in the current government, has already invited Mofaz to join the cabinet.)

But this result was as much a repudiation of the current Kadima leadership. “Voters punished Livni for both failing to excel as a leader of the opposition and for not entering the Netanyahu government and influencing ‘from within,’” argues Sheizaf. “The main argument for Livni was her ability to draw more votes; she led a successful campaign in 2009 and ended with 28 Knesset seats—one more than the Likud—but recently Livni had been polling in the mid-teens, not much more than Mofaz. These polls pretty much sealed her political fate.” While Mofaz has publicly invited her to stick around, the scuttlebutt is that Livni, once thought destined to be Israel’s first woman prime minister since Golda Meir, will retire from public life.

It’s not entirely clear what precisely Mofaz stands for. “He’s clearly evolved over time,” said Makovsky. “When he was chief of staff, he was someone who very much put forward his security credentials to oppose compromise, and then he presented the Mofaz Plan many years later, which included the very area he objected to!” It also calls for an undivided Jerusalem—“a non-starter” for the Palestinians, as Mizroch puts it. Makovsky continued, “On Iran, he’s someone who’s actually read the strategic dialogue with the United States on the Iranian issue, and pointed out that he’s Persian-born himself. He’s viewed as very much believing force should not be taken off the table. Which doesn’t mean he’s trigger-happy.” Amir Mizroch looks at the 2009 Mofaz Plan, which appears to presuppose Palestinian unity but not to demand a convincingly moderated Hamas.

In the end, what is Kadima—other than, currently, the Knesset’s biggest party? You’ll recall it was what then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon created basically as a vehicle for himself and for his project of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which he couldn’t get Likud to go along with. “Well done, Shaul, you’re the king of Kadima now,” writes David Horovitz. “But tell us, please, what do you stand for that other leaders, of other parties, don’t already more credibly represent?” That is why, though Bibi and Likud may have preferred a Livni victory yesterday, they remain firmly in the catbird seat.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.