Mofaz to flex his muscles, challenge Olmert

Minister set to challenge PM as party leader; Likud officials: He vowed to stay before leaving for Kadima.

Mofaz 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Mofaz 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz intends to use the Hanukka holiday that celebrates the heroism of the Maccabees to demonstrate his political might as a leader and as a potential challenger in Kadima to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Mofaz invited more than 200 supporters to light candles with him at Kadima's Petah Tikva headquarters on Monday in an effort to spark his run for the Kadima chairmanship in a race that could be decided in the party's membership drive that is currently taking place and ends in March. Over the past few weeks, Mofaz's opposition to Olmert has intensified and the two men have made no effort to sugarcoat their animosity. Mofaz angered Olmert last Wednesday when he visited Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and warned against the Annapolis process in a meeting the rabbi initiated. "Olmert's diplomatic path is dangerous," Mofaz told the rabbi, according to people present at the meeting. "He is letting Hamas people into the heart of Jerusalem." Mofaz blasted Olmert for releasing so many Palestinian prisoners and not leaving enough potential bargaining chips to use to bring home kidnapped corporal Gilad Schalit. He said Olmert was mistaken for negotiating with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and that any promise Israel received from him was a check that would bounce. Yosef asked Mofaz in the meeting why he did not say such things to Olmert's face. Mofaz responded that he did, and the following day he did just that. At Olmert's Hanukkah party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made a point of speaking for less than a minute. She recalled the wars of the past marked on the holiday and said that the government was working to prevent the wars of the future. In his speech, Olmert apologized to the crowd for speaking only about education and not diplomatic issues. Mofaz, by contrast, gave a political speech in which he warned Olmert not to discuss the core issues of the conflict unless Abbas gained control over all the cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He also spoke about Jerusalem in a way that made him sound like he fit more in the Right's protest against dividing the capital that was taking place at the same time at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. Olmert's opponents in the opposition have tried to exploit the rivalry between the two men, eagerly seeking Mofaz's signature for every petition against the prime minister, no matter what the issue. Mofaz signed one petition vowing to vote to keep Jerusalem undivided and another calling for the removal of Education Minister Yuli Tamir. At a meeting of Kadima ministers, Olmert said it was "improper" of Mofaz to sign the anti-Tamir petition circulated by the Likud, and he repeated his criticism to reporters in Annapolis. Sources close to the prime minister were later quoted as accusing Mofaz of "dancing at two weddings simultaneously" by running against Olmert in Kadima while trying to pave his way back to the Likud. That charge angered Mofaz. "[Such attacks] are intended to weaken Mofaz's standing in Kadima, and there is no truth to it at all," a Mofaz associate said. "To say that he is dancing at two weddings? What weddings? His situation in Kadima is not bad and that will be clear from his event [Monday], which will be impressive." Mofaz has told Likud officials to stop openly courting him. He has told them that they were damaging him in Kadima, where he vows to stay. Likud officials said that Mofaz also vowed to stay in their party before jumping ship to Kadima. They urged him to come to the Likud sooner rather than later and said the later he comes, the less he would be worth to them. "The longer Olmert's government lasts, the less important it is for Mofaz to bring it down, because it will already fall without him," a senior Likud source said. "But he belongs in the Likud, and he has credentials as a former IDF chief of General Staff that make him valuable. Valuable, but not at any price."