(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
You have to give Shaul Mofaz and Tzahi Hanegbi credit. When Shimon Peres left the Labor Party to join Kadima, I thought Israeli politics had finally gone as low as it could go. But it took Mofaz and Hanegbi little over a week to prove me wrong.
To run for the leadership of one party and then switch to another because you lost, as Peres did - or because you are clearly going to lose, as Mofaz did - is genuinely contemptible. If you do not support a party's goals and ideals, you should not be in it to begin with, much less running for its chairmanship. And if you do, you should not switch to another party just because the voters declined to give you the No. 1 slot.
Nevertheless, Peres at least never actively undermined Labor while still a member. During the leadership campaign, he touted the party's virtues, and after he lost, he kept silent until he joined Kadima.
Mofaz and Hanegbi, in contrast, both exploited their senior positions in Likud - Mofaz as a candidate for its leadership and Hanegbi as its acting chairman - to actively undermine the party in the weeks before they jumped ship to Kadima. They may not have intended to serve as a fifth column for Kadima, but that is what they did: Likud has been plummeting in the polls for two main reasons, and both are largely the work of Mofaz and Hanegbi.
One reason is that Likud is the only major party that has not yet even started campaigning, because it still has not chosen its prime ministerial candidate. Without a leader, the party lacks a rallying point and a unified message. Moreover, the lengthy primary campaign has meant that rather than directing their fire at Labor and Kadima, leading Likud members have been launching vitriolic attacks on each other. It is hard for voters to get excited about Likud when senior Likudniks are telling them not about the party's merits, but about why other senior Likudniks are reprehensible.
YET THIS entire situation is due largely to Mofaz and Hanegbi. When Ariel Sharon first left Likud to found Kadima, the three original leadership candidates - Binyamin Netanyahu, Uzi Landau and Moshe Feiglin - all urged that the primary be held as soon as possible so that the party could focus on the real campaign. But three other candidates who joined the race only after Sharon's departure - Mofaz, Silvan Shalom and Yisrael Katz - demanded a much later date, charging that otherwise, they would not have time to campaign. And Hanegbi, the acting chairman, used his authority to force a compromise. As a result, the leadership primary will be held only on December 19, and Likud will have spent the crucial first month of the campaign season leaderless and rudderless.
Mofaz was also largely responsible for the primary's vitriolic character. Netanyahu, to his credit, largely refrained from attacking his rivals, focusing instead on his own achievements. But Mofaz, along with Shalom, attacked the other candidates incessantly - as when he famously declared that Netanyahu was "born with a silver spoon in his mouth" and therefore indifferent to the poor.
The second problem dogging Likud has been its stigmatization as a party of right-wing extremists. That, of course, is precisely the image that Kadima would like it to have, but the harping on this theme by Kadima officials is obvious campaign rhetoric, so most voters would normally discount it.
The accusation seems far more credible, however, when it comes from senior members of Likud itself, who presumably have the party's best interests at heart and are not just out to smear it. And Mofaz and Hanegbi both leveled this charge relentlessly.
Mofaz, in fact, made this the centerpiece of his primary campaign: His consistent message was that Likud had become a party of extremists, and only by making him chairman could it recapture the center. But Hanegbi's anti-Likud rhetoric was perhaps even more outrageous: He repeatedly termed the Likud "rebels" - MKs who opposed the disengagement - "extremists" who "destroyed" the party by "expelling" Sharon. In other words, not only is it "extremist" to honor the wishes of party members - who voted 60-40 against disengagement in a referendum - but the entire party is worthless without Sharon!
The truth is that Likud is far from extremist; it is, as it has always been, slightly right of center. Granted, the party's membership opposed the disengagement, as did leadership candidates Landau and, to some extent, Netanyahu. But according to repeated polls, so did 35 to 40 percent of the Jewish public (the exact figure fluctuated). A position adopted by close to 40% of the Jewish public is hardly marginal or extremist.
Moreover, even among the "rebels," a primary objection to the plan was Sharon's refusal to obtain a genuine public mandate for it, via either a referendum or new elections, after having won office by campaigning explicitly against unilateral withdrawal. And on that score, Likud clearly occupies the center: Even among the plan's supporters, roughly half consistently expressed unease over Sharon's undemocratic behavior and would have preferred a clear public mandate.
But instead of focusing on issues like Sharon's undemocratic style, which would heighten Likud's appeal, Mofaz and Hanegbi preferred to depict the party as irresponsible and extremist. And with two of the party's leading members consistently painting it in the worst possible light instead of explaining why voters should support it, it is hardly surprising that voters abandoned it in droves.
Mofaz and Hanegbi certainly deserve a rich reward from Kadima: They served the party magnificently. But for any voter who believes that politics should involve at least a modicum of decency, the fact that they chose to serve Kadima from senior positions in Likud should put them beyond the pale.