(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
"The political polls in Israel are like the weather - there is no need to make decisions based on the polls, and my decision had nothing to do with them."
So said Shaul Mofaz in December 2005, justifying his decision to quit the Likud for Kadima - just days after sending voters of the former party a campaign letter in which he proudly affirmed his earlier vow not to join Ariel Sharon's new party by declaring: "You never leave your home."
Alas, as subsequent surveys showed regarding the upcoming Likud primary to succeed Sharon, the faction's voters were not so quick to forgive Mofaz's role as the defense minister who faithfully carried out the disengagement from Gaza.
"It appears that the new leadership in the Likud is comprised of the [Moshe] Feiglins and of [Binyamin] Netanyahu and [Uzi] Landau. I understood that with such a leadership, my ability to influence the future of the State of Israel would be limited," Mofaz conceded.
Now once again the current Kadima transportation minister has to take into account some unsettling poll results - those that show him trailing Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the race to succeed a beleaguered Ehud Olmert as the party's leader, in a primary race that increasingly appears inevitable given the prime minister's crumbling legal and political position. This time around, though, Mofaz has no choice but to stand his ground and duke it out for the party leadership. Does he at least have a fighting chance this time? And if so, what would be the best strategy for him to beat the odds against Livni and other potential contenders?
That the former IDF chief and defense minister, who was given a large share of the credit for beating back the second intifada, is starting this race in a trailing position is again largely his own fault. Had Mofaz joined with Olmert and Livni in immediately agreeing to join with Sharon in founding Kadima back in the autumn of 2005, there's no question he would now be occupying one of the top cabinet slots they have held since the last election.
Mofaz's hesitation was an early sign that the bold decisiveness that at times characterized his storied military career could not be transferred so easily into the governmental sphere. Part of that is attributable to Sharon's willingness to parachute him directly into the defense minister's chair without any political seasoning, a move that itself at the time spurred no little controversy.
Even when Mofaz made the belated decision to follow his mentor out of the Likud, Sharon reportedly assured his protÃ©gÃ© he would be given the defense minister's spot in a new Kadima government. This turned out to be a pledge that Olmert felt no compulsion to honor, preferring to keep the Finance Ministry for the party and hand over the military to the questionable hands of Labor's Amir Peretz.
Although it is impossible to know how Israel would have fared with an experienced security hand such as Mofaz in the Defense Ministry during the Second Lebanon War, there is no question that his absence from a key decision-making post during that conflict has enabled him to emerge as a creditable challenger for the Kadima leadership.
Mofaz's hands-on security experience, as the country contends with the situation in Gaza and faces the Iranian nuclear threat, is undoubtedly his primary asset as he prepares to take on Livni in their primary battle. It should come as no surprise, then, that suddenly some of the Foreign Minister's old comrades/friends from the Mossad have apparently decided that now is the time to conveniently drop hints to the media about her own presumably courageous exploits as an operative in some way involved with the elimination of Fatah terrorists in Europe.
Beyond their respective backgrounds, there is also a clear difference between Livni and Mofaz's future outlooks, although just how much remains unclear.
Given his role in the Gaza disengagement, Mofaz wisely chose to unofficially kick off his campaign Tuesday on the other end of the country, in the Golan, where he declared an opposition to returning the territory to Syria as part of any peace deal, in contrast to the blessings Livni has given the new round of indirect talks with Damascus.
Mofaz, who has been equally skeptical regarding the current negotiations with the Palestinians, is in this regard at least being true to the course he set out over two years ago on declaring, "I am joining Kadima to make sure that it doesn't become too leftist."
It is more than a little ironic then, if not cynical, to see the transportation minister emerge as the prime minister's chief defender in the cabinet, and Olmert in turn showing signs of favoring Mofaz over Livni as his successor. While it is the latter who would most clearly continue the diplomatic processes the prime minister has initiated with the Palestinians and the Syrians, Olmert clearly cannot forgive Livni her call last year for his resignation in response to the interim Winograd Report, and thus now is tipping toward Mofaz (proving that political payback does make strange bedfellows).
How much Olmert's help will count in Mofaz's primary battle against Livni is far from certain, as is pretty much everything else when it comes to Kadima's first internal election. This includes poll results, since a clear picture of the true ideological outlook and political loyalties of the some 62,000 members the party has signed up over the past two-and-half-years has yet to emerge. Mofaz, for example, has reportedly used his Transportation Ministry perch to court favor among the tens of thousands of Egged employees and airports workers, and has focused on courting Kadima mayors and council heads who could help get out the vote on primary day.
Even if the latest polls are accurate in showing Livni enjoying some 35 percent of a Kadima vote and a 10% lead over Mofaz, she would still need a second round of voting for to gain the 50-plus percentage usually required in primary contests. Mofaz would not be unjustified in thinking that in a second round he could nab a greater share of votes from those now declaring their support for the two other potential contenders trailing further back in the polls, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit.
And even if Mofaz does fall short against Livni, a strong showing in the primary will help him nail down the No. 2 slot in the party - in particular over Dichter - that he lost out on when Kadima was formed. If Livni should prevail in a subsequent general election, that position might well return him to the defense minister's spot; if she fails, and the party manages to survive that loss and not completely atomize as many predict, Mofaz will be well positioned to challenge her leadership for what remains of Kadima.
In the army Mofaz was famous for his persistence, famously applying three times to the officers' course until he was finally accepted.
His road to the top of Kadima - and beyond - might well take similar patience and determination if he is to have even a fighting chance.