(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is assembling his Kadima party Monday to plan for the upcoming general elections.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz is expected to join the meeting, a day after his announcement that he was quitting the Likud leadership race and bolting the Likud to join the Kadima party.
Sources in Kadima have said Mofaz wasn't received with open arms. Sharon's associates said the prime minister contemplated rejecting Mofaz, but he ultimately decided to accept him because he hoped the defense minister's departure from the Likud could be the last nail in its coffin.
One of Kadima's top MKs complained on Sunday that the party was too packed with people for its own good.
There are now 16 individuals who expect to be ministers in Kadima, including eight current ministers, former ministers Shimon Peres, Dalia Itzik and Haim Ramon, newcomers Uriel Reichman and Avi Dichter and MKs Ze'ev Boim, Roni Bar-On and Ya'acov Edri, who are expected to be appointed ministers after next Monday's Likud primary.
Sharon made no promise to Mofaz that he would keep the defense portfolio after the March 28 election. Sharon's associates said the prime minister had made prior commitments to politicians, such as Dichter, who joined the party before Mofaz. A source close to Sharon even hinted that Mofaz could be given the Social Affairs portfolio after he declared himself a spokesman for the poor during the campaign.
Without Mofaz and Sharon, the Likud is left with no respected security men, increasing the likelihood that former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu would bring former IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya'alon into the party if he is elected Likud leader.
Sharon's associates privately have expressed hope that Netanyahu will be elected Likud leader because they believe he would cause more voters to choose Kadima.
Mofaz decided over the weekend to join Kadima after seeing polls indicating he could finish fourth in the Likud race after Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Likud activist Moshe Feiglin. A Mofaz aide negotiated with Sharon advisers Uri Shani and Dov Weisglass, who ultimately persuaded Sharon to let him into the party.
Mofaz's announcement came the same day 128,000 Likud members received a letter from him in the mail in which he promised he would remain in the party.
"I decided to stay in the Likud even though Sharon promised me the Defense portfolio, because it is wrong to leave a [political] home," Mofaz said in the letter. "Sharon made a bad mistake when he joined with Peres, Ramon and Itzik on the Left."
In a press conference at Tel Aviv's Beit Sokolov, Mofaz said he joined Sharon's party "to prevent Kadima from moving too far to the left."
Reading a prepared speech from a piece of paper, Mofaz said the Likud had changed, and not him.
"I have realized that the Likud has drifted away to the extreme right, and that's just not me," he said. "I saw that the Feiglins, Netanyahu and Landau are the next leadership of the Likud, and therefore my ability to have influence would have been limited."
Mofaz, who openly sparred with Sharon last week, said: "What the country needs now is the combination of Sharon and myself to lead the party for the next few years."
Shalom called a press conference immediately after Mofaz's, which he opened by saying: "I am sorry to disappoint you, but despite the trend, I am staying in the Likud to lead the party to new heights." He warned Likud voters that Netanyahu would not be able to attract centrist voters or people disaffected by his economic policies, and hinted that Netanyahu could not be trusted after he left the party for the business world in 1999.
"I have never abandoned the party in good times or in bad," Shalom said.
Netanyahu did not call a press conference, but released a statement saying: "Kadima had brought unacceptable norms to Israeli politics, in which politicians with no values or principles can be bought or sold." He predicted that "the Likud will remain loyal to its principles long after the opportunists in Kadima break up."
Feiglin said the "crocodile tears of Mofaz were shameful. The man who came to the Likud four years ago for a job is fleeing the party now because he is not doing well in the polls. Mofaz doesn't care about the Likud, only about his own job."
Labor chairman Amir Peretz said, "Sharon has brought shame to Israeli politics by buying every politician available on the market in discount sales, without ideology."
Likud MK Ayoub Kara drew parallels between Mofaz's actions Sunday and his military record.
"Mofaz has abandoned the Likud in the field just as he abandoned our soldiers at Joseph's Tomb," he said, referring to the 2000 attack in Nablus in which Druse border policeman Madhat Yusuf died of blood loss because of the IDF's delay in evacuating him from the site. The incident occurred while Mofaz served as chief of General Staff.
Meanwhile, Kadima opened its new headquarters in Petah Tikva on Sunday with a meeting between its campaign chairman, Ehud Olmert, and some 100 mayors who may support the party.
Kadima decided Sunday to give the Likud NIS 3 million in campaign funding, because its MKs had signed a promise not to take campaign funding away from the Likud if they left the party.
The Likud central committee will meet Monday to consider whether to move up the slots on the party's list reserved for newcomers. If the proposal passes, only 14 realistic slots will be available to candidates who have previously served in the Knesset.