Politics: Second fiddlers

January 25, 2010 12:49


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'Two can be as bad as one," Three Dog Night sang in their 1969 hit song. "It's the loneliest number since the number one." The song certainly wasn't written with politicians in mind, but it might as well have been. Case in point: The number two men in Kadima, Labor and Likud appear to be nearly as lonely politically as the number ones in their parties.

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MK Shaul Mofaz, Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog and Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar are all bright, ambitious and have strong leadership qualities. They just each have one thing in the way: Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu respectively.

Over the past 10 days, each of the three number twos flexed their political muscles in some way, making it clear that they are forces that cannot be ignored in the near future. But they are all in different points in their lives and careers, and their strategies for ascending to the leadership of their party and the Prime Minister's Office could not be more different.

Mofaz escalated his attack on Livni with a rally on Thursday night in which he and hundreds of his supporters called for advancing Kadima's leadership race. Herzog made news when he publicly blamed Barak for Labor rebel Ophir Paz-Pines quitting the Knesset. And Sa'ar, who had made a point of giving interviews only about education since the coalition was formed, noticeably returned to talking about diplomatic issues.

The most overtly ambitious of the three is Mofaz, who at 61 is already running for the leadership of a party for the third time. He was scarred by his poorly staged shift to Kadima in the midst of his campaign for Likud leader and by his failure to immediately challenge the questionable results of the September 2008 Kadima race.

Mofaz has tried to transform his image as a rightist with a dull personality by coming out with a dovish peace plan, smiling more and getting photographed doing yoga. In what is the dream of any politician, he does not have to worry about funding or limiting what he can say, thanks to rich Persian Jews in the US and his no holds barred strategy for challenging Livni.

His liabilities include that he is not as popular in the general public as he is in his party, and that after seven years as IDF chief of General Staff and defense minister, he is used to being in charge and has forgotten how to be subordinate.

"Being number two automatically makes you impatient to be number one, because you constantly remember that you aren't number one," a source close to Mofaz said. "His problem is not that he is number two. It's that Livni is number one. If the number one in his party was an amazing leader or if the party were part of the government, maybe he would have acted differently."

Mofaz's attacks on Livni have become increasingly fierce in recent days. He blamed her for all the country's woes and vowed to not rest until a date for a rematch against her was advanced from its current date in 2013.

"When I see the damage she did to the country and the party, I can't sit quietly," he said, never referring to Livni by name. "She made wrong decisions at every junction. We could have been a serious player in the government. The state is suffering from Kadima not being in the coalition, and so is the party. I will push for primaries every week until she finally agrees."

Herzog also wants to expedite the leadership race in his party, which is currently set for October 2012. But unlike Mofaz, he has resisted the temptation to burn bridges.

The Labor rebels continue to court Herzog to lead a split in the party and out of the coalition. But he has turned them down thus far, because he believes that Netanyahu genuinely wants to lead a peace process, and because he likes his current job in which he is helping improve the lives of the country's most disadvantaged people.

Herzog, 49, turned down a promotion to a more prestigious portfolio when the government was formed, even though it could have forestalled his political ascension. Barak's behavior toward his formerly loyal aide has changed since Herzog won the second spot on Labor's list and presented himself as Barak's heir apparent, a notion further emboldened by Pines-Paz leaving the party.

Barak angered Herzog when he tried to pass a new constitution for Labor that Herzog considered dictatorial, and when Barak appointed himself as Labor's representative on the Ministerial Ethics Committee instead of Herzog. After multiple scandals erupted that questioned Barak's ethics, Herzog had a hard time remaining silent, but he did until Paz-Pines left last week.

"It's up to our generation to determine whether the party has a chance to renew itself and stand on its feet again," Herzog said, in a direct challenge to Barak.

That prompted Barak's office to issue a statement criticizing Herzog for the first time, saying that his shift from Paz-Pines critic to defender illustrated that he lacked the traits necessary to lead.

Herzog told The Jerusalem Post this week that he has pleaded with Barak to present a recovery plan for the party that includes a date for advancing its leadership race. He said that Barak cannot count on him to remain in the government at any price.

"If I see no peace process develop, I will initiate the internal party procedures for leaving the coalition," he said. "The situation in my party is so disturbing that it haunts me. I believe in Labor's ideology and I still want to give the party a chance. But people tell me that if I wait three years, I might not have a party left. We may find ourselves competing in a race over a dead body."

The only one of the three number twos who has not and will not threaten his party's leader is Sa'ar. At 43, he is the youngest of the three, and he is a minister for the first time. But sources close to him said he wants to be prime minister immediately after Netanyahu, and he might be even more ambitious than Mofaz.

Sa'ar has become very close to the top journalists in the Hebrew press, who he regularly updates. Every move he makes has been calculated politically, including his recent move to the center of the political map, his refusal to condemn the settlement freeze and his defense of Netanyahu.

He started off his tenure as education minister with humanizing interviews together with his daughters. He has used the job to advance so-called motherhood-and-apple-pie issues like Zionism, Hebrew and school uniforms. Even in his recent return to discussing diplomatic issues, he has stuck with consensus topics like defending Israel from American pressure and questioning the Palestinian leadership's desire for peace.

Sa'ar told the Post that he did not let winning the second slot on the Likud list get to his head. He declined to criticize the impatience of Mofaz and Herzog, but he stressed that he was handling being number two differently.

"The other number twos have declared they want to be number one," Saar said. "I don't feel that because I got chosen where I did that I must start working immediately to get one step higher. I am satisfied with where I am right now."

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