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Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz voted against the release of Palestinian prisoners in Sunday's cabinet meeting, reinforcing his image as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's strongest opposition within Kadima.
Mofaz has become the leader of the Right inside Kadima, presenting himself as the ideological counterpart of Vice Premier Haim Ramon on the Left. He voted against the first round of Palestinian prisoner releases and he has been very vocal against Ramon's plans to divide Jerusalem.
An announced candidate for the Kadima leadership, Mofaz has sparred openly with Olmert on everything from budget cuts in his ministry to negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Mofaz fiercely attacked Olmert in Thursday's Kadima council meeting, but the criticism was overshadowed by his attack on Ramon.
"We need to clearly decide what our red lines are to guarantee defensible borders for Israel with a united Jerusalem," Mofaz said at the meeting. "We are facing a Palestinian Authority that is in chaos. The Kassams are still falling. Gilad Schalit is still in the hands of his captors. The day when Fatah and Hamas will return to each other's arms is not far away. I say our security interests must come before everything else."
Other past critics of Olmert in Kadima, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, have ended their internal opposition in recent months as Olmert has recovered politically from the Second Lebanon War and gradually risen in the polls. Mofaz has only became more critical of his party chairman.
Asked about his opposition to Olmert, Mofaz told Israel Radio on Sunday that he was merely being consistent. "My opinions on security haven't changed," he said. "My being in Kadima shouldn't change my views."
Olmert's opponents in Kadima said they would have liked to see Mofaz lead a split in the party, but they did not believe Mofaz was ready to take such a risk. Instead, Mofaz will try to defeat Olmert democratically in an eventual Kadima primary.
Olmert will answer questions from MKs angry about the prisoner release at a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday when the Knesset meets in a special session during its summer recess.
MKs on the Right slammed Olmert on Sunday and called for Shas and Israel Beiteinu to quit the coalition.
"Shas and Israel Beiteinu cannot claim to have clean hands and pretend to not be partners in the decision to release terrorists," National Religious Party chairman Zevulun Orlev said. "Anytime Israel released terrorists it ended up boomeranging against us with terrorist attacks."
National Union MK Zvi Hendel said Israel Beiteinu and Shas ministers were trying to hide behind their opposition to the prisoner release, but by remaining in the government they were "shamefully avoiding responsibility."
Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar said, "At a time when attempts to commit terrorist attacks are intensifying, the Olmert government is once again conceding unilaterally and demonstrating weakness."
Many MKs said Israel should not have released prisoners before Schalit returned to his family. But Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle praised the cabinet's decision. "Prisoners and captives on both sides have worried families," he said, adding that Israel is obligated to take steps to "strengthen the forces of sanity and pragmatism in the West Bank."
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