Politics: Eeny, meeny, miny, moe - Tzipi or Shaul?

With Likud comfortably ahead in polls, the question is: Which Kadima leader makes easier prey?

Mofaz Netanyahu Livni 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Mofaz Netanyahu Livni 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Knesset members from across the political spectrum focused their attention this week on the rocket fire from Gaza, the IDF’s response, and the possibility of a clash with Iran.
But behind the scenes, MKs were also talking about another battle brewing: The Kadima leadership race that is quietly approaching on March 27.
MKs in Likud are especially intrigued by the race between opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Shaul Mofaz, which could determine Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s main competition in the next election.
Every Monday, Netanyahu comes at least half an hour late to the Likud’s weekly faction meeting. And every week, ministers, MKs and reporters come on time, just in case the prime minister suddenly becomes punctual.
During that dead time this week, the politicians and press debated whom would be better for the Likud: Tzipi or Shaul – with strong arguments on both sides.
Obviously, the Likud’s opinion does not matter much. It will be Kadima’s 95,000 members who decide the race.
But even after 6,400 Likud members were expelled from Kadima’s membership rolls, there are still thought to be thousands of closeted Likudniks who have stayed in Kadima in order to help Likud. Known as “mischief voting,” this phenomenon has occurred in America’s Republican primaries in which Democrats voted for conservative candidates in order to help US President Barack Obama.
Multiple Likud ministers, MKs, and officials said Kadima members have been asking them whether they should be voting for Mofaz or Livni if they want to help Netanyahu.
Some avoided the question by downplaying the chance of either candidate to pose a serious threat to Netanyahu in the next general election.
But others were less cautious.
“If Likudniks could decide who would head Kadima, there is no doubt that they would pick Livni,” an official close to Netanyahu said. “He can cause real harm to Netanyahu and she can’t anymore.”
The official said that just like former Shas leader Arye Deri, Mofaz has the ability to take votes away from the Center-Right bloc and give them to the Center-Left. Mofaz, who was born in Iran and raised poor in Eilat, could persuade Sephardi voters in development towns and inner cities to switch over to Kadima.
This would especially be true if socioeconomic issues, as expected, play a central role in the next general election. Livni, who is perceived as elitist and whose father was a Knesset member, does not have that card to play.
The official expressed concern that Mofaz could still build himself up as a leader in a way that Livni had a chance to, but failed. He said he was impressed by the way Mofaz used his Knesset committee and diplomatic plan to add to his credentials.
“With Livni, we asked in our campaign what would happen if she got the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call, but we can’t do that with a former IDF chief of general staff and defense minister who has gotten those calls hundreds of times,” the official said.
MK Danny Danon, who is among the Likud politicians who have been asked how to vote by Kadima members, said “Mofaz is more problematic for us because Tzipi is a dead horse.
She can’t take votes away from Likud and the public is disappointed with her, but Mofaz can build an agenda.”
A Likud minister said Livni, Lapid, new Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich and new Meretz head Zehava Gal-On would be “a four-headed hydra on the Left, with four parties competing for the same votes, but Mofaz is irrelevant for such people.”
Other Likud MKs gave a different reason why they want Livni to win the election. They don’t want to see Mofaz have the pleasure of toppling their nemesis.
“We want Tzipi because we want to be the ones who finally bring her down,” said Deputy Negev and Galilee Development Minister Ayoub Kara.
“Both candidates have their minuses and not many pluses, and no matter who wins, Kadima will break up and Likud will gain.”
Arguments in favor of Mofaz winning the Kadima race among Likud politicians and officials were equally strong. They said that due to the animosity between the prime minister and Livni, only Mofaz could be a partner in a coalition Netanyahu could form after the next general election.
“There is no soldier who will be more loyal to Netanyahu in the next government than Mofaz,” a Likud official said.
A Likud minister took that argument one step further and predicted that under Mofaz, Kadima could even be absorbed back into the Likud.
“After the general election, if Mofaz has won only eight or nine seats, Kadima would become easy prey for Likud,” the minister said.
“Mofaz could go back to being transportation minister, and his constituency of former Likudniks could come home.”
Put in a very different way, another official said it was important that Mofaz beat Livni because her refusal to bring Kadima into a coalition with Netanyahu made it harder for the prime minister to advance the peace process. The official said he wanted Livni out of the way because she was “an obstacle to peace.”
Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon downplayed the threat that Mofaz poses to Netanyahu. He mocked Mofaz for abruptly quitting the Likud leadership race in December 2005 and jumping ship to Kadima.
“The notion that Mofaz takes votes away from Likud is a myth,” Ya’alon said. “What Likud voter is going to switch over to Kadima for Mofaz who said ‘you don’t leave your political home,’ and then left?” Asked whether the public would not be more likely to vote for a party headed by a former IDF chief of general staff, he referred to himself, stating: “What, isn’t there a former chief of staff in Likud?” Other Likud officials said it was wrong to underestimate Livni’s ability to rebound and resurrect herself politically. They noted that in the last general election, Kadima got more votes than Likud, and under certain circumstances, Livni could bring about the same result the next time Israelis go to the polls.
But most Likud ministers and MKs said they did not expect any potential Kadima leader to threaten the Likud’s hegemony. They expressed confidence that current polls predicting the Likud at least doubling Kadima’s votes would not change.
“When they were a large party, who headed Kadima was more significant,” a Likud minister said.
“Now it looks like they will be the fourth-largest party, at best. With a rotting corpse, vultures take away the flesh without paying much attention to the head.”