No matter which way Mofaz turns, the party is over

With his draft law proposal sabotaged by the PM, and his colleagues rebelling, the vice PM’s unity gambit is proving to be Kadima’s death blow

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Shaul Mofaz arrives at his first Kadima meeting as the new head of the party (photo credit: by Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Shaul Mofaz arrives at his first Kadima meeting as the new head of the party (photo credit: by Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In Israel, the political center tends to swallow parties whole. New ones come and go all the time. Until about two months ago, when Israel thought it was headed for early elections, it seemed that Kadima had outlived its purpose after seven years on the stage and would be decimated by the growing right-wing bloc, the new centrist party of Yair Lapid and the revitalized Labor party.

But newly elected chairman Shaul Mofaz threw the floundering party a lifeline — or what he thought was a lifeline — when he joined the government and averted premature elections. The maneuver further damaged his tarnished credibility, but assured his party’s political survival for another year and a half. Or seemed to.

Until now.

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dissolution Monday of the Plesner committee, tasked with drafting new universal conscription legislation — whose formation was one of the main selling points for joining the coalition — Mofaz finds himself in a lose-lose situation. He can back down from his bluster and cave to Netanyahu, pushing himself and his party into irrelevancy. Or he can cause a full-blown coalition crisis and push for early elections, where his party will likely be trounced.

“Kadima will not compromise on the principle of universal service,” Mofaz said Monday, after Netanyahu unilaterally did away with the Plesner panel. “If that principle is violated, it will be a fundamental violation of the national unity agreement — with the inherent consequences.”

Some of those consequences were already being felt Tuesday, with a handful of Kadima MKs openly advocating leaving the government.

Haim Ramon and Tzipi Livni at the Knesset in 2009 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Haim Ramon and Tzipi Livni at the Knesset in 2009 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Ever since Mofaz took Kadima’s helm in late March, some of the party’s MKs have been contemplating breaking away to form another new centrist party, with his predecessor Tzipi Livni as their leader. That process has also been jolted by the dispute over universal conscription. On Tuesday, Kadima co-founder and former minister Haim Ramon announced that he plans to launch his own centrist party.

Whatever the future holds for Livni, who has taken a time out from politics since losing the party leadership to Mofaz, or for Ramon, now ready to end his time out, it is unlikely that there will be much left of Kadima as we know it after the next elections.

The rifts are deepening, with perhaps half the party’s lawmakers more loyal to Livni, or at least her politics, than to Mofaz. And the cracks are taking an ongoing toll on the party’s polling numbers. When early elections seemed inevitable, just a few months ago, analysts and polls suggested Kadima could crash from its current 28 seats to 13, 12 or even fewer. In mid-May, 10 days after Mofaz brought Kadima into the coalition, a poll conducted by the Knesset Channel predicted it would win just three seats next time around. Few would bet on even those three seats as things stand now.

Mofaz knew he would be ridiculed for breaking his promise not to join Netanyahu’s government. After all, the Iranian-born Kadima leader had called the prime minister a “liar” only shortly before he chose to become vice prime minister. But announcing the improbable partnership on May 8, Netanyahu at his side, he professed to be full of optimism, speaking of a “historic opportunity.”

Four points were on the political agenda, with progress promised on all before the next elections: the legislation of a replacement for the Tal Law, which allowed yeshiva students to defer conscription; electoral reform; policies geared toward maintaining a Jewish and democratic Israel, and progress toward a viable accommodation with the Palestinians.

“The prime minister and I will be judged by results and not by promises,” Mofaz said at the time. But results there are none. And while few people expected the new national unity government to actually come through with groundbreaking achievements in all the promised areas, there was some optimism about a more equal conscription process. And not many anticipated that the unity dream would be shattered so soon.

Netanyahu on Monday disbanded the Plesner committee, led by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, because he feared that its recommendations would be unacceptable to the ultra-Orthodox parties. Recognizing Kadima’s weakness, he decided it was smarter not to offend his long-term religious coalition partners too badly; he might need them long after Kadima has evaporated.

On Wednesday, MK Plesner is going to defy the prime minister and announce the recommendations of his committee to the public. Based on Netanyahu’s reaction to the plan, Mofaz will decide whether to remain in the government or return to the opposition — which would be a resounding, embarrassing humiliation for Kadima and its leader.

Netanyahu will weather the storm. Neither the stalemate with the Palestinians, nor the brouhaha over the draft law will seriously endanger him in the foreseeable future. Kadima, in its current form and with its current leader, by contrast, does not appear to have a future at all.

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