When the Knesset reconvenes after the current Passover break, Shaul Mofaz will be the leader of the parliament’s largest party and the head of the opposition. While he is currently all smiles about his landslide victory against Tzipi Livni, the political reality he is about to face will soon enough cause him severe headaches. Numerous challenges lie ahead.
While it can be assumed that Kadima will temporarily soar in the next few surveys, that does not change the fact that the outlook is bleak. Kadima — a party that was born to govern — is currently expected to garner no more than 12 Knesset mandates, hardly a serious threat to Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. Since Shelly Yachimovich took over the Labor Party, her party has been soaring in the polls. Labor is successfully presenting itself an alternative to the right-wing bloc, while Kadima under Mofaz risks being seen as Likud-lite.
A former defense minister and deputy prime minister, the 63-year-old Mofaz is tired of being in the opposition. Kadima MKs and political analysts suspect him of being far more willing than Livni was to join a Netanyahu-led government, though he denies it categorically.
As a former IDF chief of staff, Mofaz needs to convince the public that he also knows his stuff outside the battlefield. He is widely considered a hawk on security issues, remembered for ordering house demolitions and other harsh counterterrorism measures. In 2001, left-wing activists called for a criminal investigation over accusations he demanded a “quota” of 70 Palestinian bodies a day during his time as army chief.
As IDF chief of staff Mofaz was responsible for operations that brought him respect from hardliners but condemnations from pro-Palestinian activists and the human rights community. Most notable among these was Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, during which the IDF besieged the Ramallah compound of Yasser Arafat and raided Jenin and other Palestinian localities — in what proved an effective effort at dismantling the infrastructure that was sending suicide bombers into Israel.
Still, besides chairing the powerful Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Mofaz is also currently a member of a Knesset caucus “promoting the two-state solution and separation between Israel and the Palestinians.”
“Mofaz has an image problem,” Haaretz’s Yossi Verter observed Wednesday. “He is perceived by many as a cold and unfeeling general, belligerent and right-wing,” Verter wrote, going on to say that this reputation was undeserved, as Mofaz really was a “moderate” just like Livni.
Mofaz will have to work hard to demonstrate to the public that this indeed the case. It remains to be seen if his recent constant evoking of the social justice movement — including calls for a “new social order” during his victory speech Wednesday morning — will achieve its goal.
A native of Tehran — he arrived in Israel when he was 9 — Mofaz’s view on Iran seems in line with Israel’s current leaders. “We cannot let Iran have a nuclear capability,” he said back in early 2008, adding that if diplomacy and sanctions won’t dissuade the Islamic Republic from its nuclear ambitions, “we have to say loud and clear that all the options are on the table.”
Mofaz lost to Livni in a neck-and-neck race in Kadima’s 2008 primaries. But this time he was able to play party politics well enough to pull off a big win. It is no secret that Livni lost partly because she didn’t master the art of wheeling and dealing so needed by politicians who want to get anywhere in Israel.
Mofaz is her opposite: He knows how to play the game, but he suffers from a lack of credibility. In 2005, Ariel Sharon invited him to leave the Likud — of which he had been a member since 2002 — and join the newly founded Kadima. Mofaz declined. “You do not leave your home,” he said. Less than a month later, when it was clear that he had no chance of becoming the head of Likud, he joined Kadima.
Mofaz, a father of four, has also been viciously attacking Netanyahu. If the opposition leader at some point in the near future decides to join a Likud-led government, opponents denouncing him as a master of the flip-flop will have further ammunition.
“The Fata Morgana in which you and your party colleagues live may be called ‘the largest party in the Knesset’ but we live in Bibiland and this reality will not change. It does not matter how many political rabbits you try to pull out of the hat along the way,” Uri Shealtiel wrote in Wednesday’s Maariv. Shealtiel predicted that Mofaz will hold his new title as the head of the opposition only until the next elections, when Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich will inherit it. “In the next Knesset, it is reasonable to assume that you will lead Kadima into the single digits,” he asserted.
Whether Mofaz will be able to avert this scenario might partly depend on the performance of TV personality-cum wannabe MK Yair Lapid, as well as on Tzipi Livni. If she puts her bruised ego aside and submits to Mofaz’s rule, they might yet garner as many seats as Labor. But Livni might also create her own breakaway faction and take some senior Kadima MKs with her, further shaking up the political landscape.
Shaul Mofaz won a resounding victory this week. He has a long way to go before he can fulfill the promise he made on Tuesday, when he vowed to dethrone Benjamin Netanyahu.