Apres Olmert

As Kadima front-runners Livni and Mofaz gear up for September primaries, the Israeli political landscape is set to witness dramatic changes

10cover224 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
10cover224 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
Cover story in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Hours before he declared his candidacy for Kadima leader and prime minister in early August, Shaul Mofaz made a political pilgrimage. Wearing a dark blue shirt, dapper black pants and with a large black skullcap covering his shiny bald patch, Mofaz called on Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. On the way out, the Iranian-born Mofaz described the meeting with the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi leader as having gone "extremely well." But the transportation minister had only shaken hands with the octogenarian rabbi; a week earlier, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu had gone the same route - and received a kiss on the forehead. For Mofaz, the meeting with Yosef was supposed to show that if elected Kadima leader in a party primary set for September, Mofaz would be able to form a stable coalition that would include Shas and that this key haredi party would not necessarily opt for new elections and a better coalition deal from Netanyahu. Indeed, Mofaz's strongest campaign suit is the argument that he is the only Kadima candidate who could form a viable coalition, obviating the need for early elections that would probably bring Netanyahu to power early next year. In other words, he can promise Kadima members at least another two years in power, until the next scheduled election in late 2010. Supporters of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the front-runner to succeed Ehud Olmert as party leader and prime minister, are skeptical. They note that Netanyahu, confident of beating Mofaz in an election, would never join in a coalition with him. And, as for Shas, its coalition demands will likely be so high that no realistic state budget will be able to accommodate them. Viewing early elections as an almost certainty, Livni's people make the counter argument that she is the only Kadima candidate who could beat Netanyahu in a showdown on the national stage. The fact that some polls, conducted by leading national pollsters, confirm this makes it Livni's most convincing campaign message. There are four Kadima candidates - Mofaz, Livni, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit - to succeed Olmert, who announced dramatically on July 30 that he would resign as prime minister after the Kadima primary and focus on fighting a cluster of corruption allegations and clearing his name. Only Livni and Mofaz are thought to have any chance of winning. The two front-runners offer very different futures for Kadima. The hawkish Mofaz would likely pull the party to the right, making it virtually indistinguishable from the Likud. Livni offers a more centrist orientation, contesting the center-right with Likud and the center-left with Labor. Indeed, the ideological differences between Livni and Mofaz, who were both leading members of the Likud before the creation of Kadima, are so acute that it is hard to see them working together, and there are real fears in Kadima that the party will split after the primary. That would dramatically change the Israeli political landscape. But the changes at the top could be even more dramatic in the event of an early spring national election. That would bring former prime ministers, Netanyahu and Labor's Ehud Barak, into the frame as potential national leaders. The shake-up in Israel's Middle East policies could be radical. Netanyahu, for example, would almost certainly restructure and decelerate the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating framework. Public opinion polls place Barak a poor third in an election race, behind Netanyahu and Livni - but were he to win, there would be changes too. Moreover, whether there are elections or not, the impending Israeli leadership changes will coincide with the installation of a new administration in Washington. As both Jerusalem and Washington reassess regional policy, the implications for the Middle East and Israel-U.S. relations could be huge. For example, how would Barack Obama, with plans to move ahead quickly, get on with a recalcitrant Netanyahu? Or John McCain with Mofaz? With the Kadima primary little more than a month away, Mofaz is showing strength on the ground. More than 20 Kadima mayors, including those of the large cities of Haifa, Ramat Gan, Rishon Lezion and Beersheba, have thrown their considerable weight behind him. The mayors have been bringing in thousands of new Kadima recruits in the run-up to the local council elections in November, and this could produce major dividends for Mofaz. Kadima local council campaign bosses have also made a deal with 11 Russian-speaker lists not running for mayor but for places on local councils. This also seems to be helping Mofaz and pundits reckon the Russian vote could go two to one in his favor - not an insignificant factor, since Russian speakers make up 17 percent of the Kadima membership. Another sector in the party that could prove decisive is the Arab and Druze membership. The relatively dovish Livni will take most of the Arab vote; but there is an all-out battle for the Druze, with Livni enjoying the support of her influential deputy Foreign Minister Majali Whbee, and Mofaz relying on Druze vote contractor Suschi Tambi, for whom he recently found a cushy job in the Transportation Ministry. Mofaz's campaign is being run by Arthur Finkelstein, the American spin-doctor who brought Netanyahu to power in 1996 with some trademark negative campaigning. Mofaz, the former chief of staff and defense minister, with more than 30 years service in the IDF, is projecting himself as the man Israelis would like to answer the telephone in a major crisis. Livni, he argues, does not have the necessary experience to deal with the huge regional threats Israel faces. Mofaz, though, has two major weaknesses: The perception that Kadima under him would lose its raison d'être because it would look too much like Likud, and the fact that an overwhelming majority of the party's Knesset members support Livni. At least 15 of Kadima's 29 MKs are expected to back the foreign minister; so far the only Knesset member to declare for Mofaz is hawkish Russian-speaker Zeev Elkin. Immediately after the Annapolis peace conference last November, Elkin issued a sharp challenge to Olmert's leadership, accusing him of abandoning the party platform on Jerusalem, the fight against terror, and the Golan Heights. Long before the Talansky "black money" affair that finally sank Olmert, Elkin was touting Mofaz as the only Kadima leader who had remained loyal to the party's founding principles. But Elkin does not rule out the possibility of a reversal of the "big bang" under Mofaz through the reunification of Kadima and Likud. "True, there are people in the Likud far to the right of Kadima ideology. But if Livni loses and breaks away, who knows?" he declares. Of the three Russian-speaking Knesset members in Kadima, two, Michael Nudelman and Marina Solodkin, are neutral. Elkin has been stomping the Russian street for Mofaz, and says that Solodkin, although once close to Livni, has been quietly telling her activists to go with Mofaz. "There is so far no major Russian activist who has come out for Livni, and without activists the public can identify with, the Russian vote will end in a landslide for Mofaz," predicts. But if Mofaz is so strong on the ground, how is it that he trails Livni by 8 to 10 percent in all the published polls? According to Elkin, the explanation is simple: All the polls conducted so far have been based on outdated voters' registers. "Our internal polls, based on a more up to date voters' roll, show Mofaz slightly ahead," he claims. Livni is running a three-pronged campaign, highlighting her squeaky-clean image in an age of sleaze, the fact that she is the only Kadima candidate capable of winning a national election and the idea that she, more than any other candidate, reflects the centrist ideas on which Ariel Sharon built Kadima. Her spin-doctors are Eyal Arad and Reuven Adler, admen who ran campaigns for Sharon and were part of his inner circle. One of Livni's earliest open supporters was Knesset Member Isaac Ben-Israel. In mid-May, he caused a stir when he convened a meeting of anti-Olmert MKs in his Ramat Hasharon home and was accused of trying to start a putsch. Ben-Israel explains his support for Livni in her ability to restore confidence in the country's institutions, much eroded during Olmert's tenure. "The biggest problem threatening our existence is the public's disaffection with politics in general. It's a loss of faith in government, the army, the courts, the media, all the country's democratic institutions, and, in my view, it's a more serious existential threat than the Iranian bomb. I don't underestimate our security and economic problems. But there are big organizational structures that deal with them, such as the Defense Ministry, the Treasury, the economic organizations. But when it comes to the prime minister, the top of the pyramid, we need someone who projects a different kind of politics and values. And that person is Tzipi Livni," he declares. Ben-Israel, a former chief scientist in the Defense ministry, rejects the charge that Livni does not have enough security experience for the top job. He points out that she has been a minister for seven years and a member of the small three-person security cabinet, together with Olmert and Barak, where all the major security decisions are taken, for the past three years. Moreover, he argues, "We have had prime ministers with lots of military experience, and some with virtually none, but there has been little correlation between the degree of experience and the degree of success as prime minister. For example, civilians like Begin and Eshkol were good prime ministers, while General [Ehud] Barak was a disaster." Like Elkin, Ben-Israel does not rule out a split in the party after the primaries. "If Mofaz or anyone else leads Kadima in directions that are at variance with its centrist principles, I won't stay either," he insists. In order to prevent a split after the primary, two senior Kadima politicians, Knesset Speaker Dahlia Itzik and Tzachi Hanegbi, who heads the Knesset's prestigious Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, suggested that all candidates vow not to leave the party after the primary and to make the runner-up No. 2. Livni balked, saying openly that she would not stick with a political framework in which she no longer believed. In early August, the Kadima Caucus, where she is strong, voted the proposal down. The Kadima primary could therefore be the first act in a major upheaval in Israeli politics. Act II could be a split in the dominant centrist party, while Act III would see elections in the spring of 2009, which are likely to bring the Israeli right to power. Yoel Hasson, chairman of the current coalition and a strong Livni supporter, predicts elections within months of the Kadima primary. "As someone who has been involved with the current coalition from day one, I don't see any prospect of a lasting coalition. Even if the Kadima winner manages to form one, it will be short-term only, and we will have elections in a few months," he says. That could mean radical new directions in Israeli policy, depending on who eventually becomes prime minister. Netanyahu, for example, sees the current attempt by the Olmert government to reach final peace deals with the Palestinians and the Syrians as foolhardy. He is against what he calls "endism," trying to end the complex Israel-Arab conflict at a stroke, and advocates a measured step-by-step approach instead. For example, on the Syrian track, Damascus would have to break with Tehran and show over time that the breach is final before Israel returns any part of the strategic Golan Heights. Under Mofaz, both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks will almost certainly be slowed down. He takes a long view of Mideast processes, sees change evolving slowly over decades and rules out precipitate peacemaking. Peace, in his view, will only come when conditions are ripe and cannot be accelerated artificially. Barak still seems to envisage an eventual unilateral pullback from the West Bank - but only after Israel has in place an effective anti-missile defense system against Qassams and longer range Grad rockets. As defense minister he has made the development of a multilayered anti-missile system - one that provides protection against long-, medium- and short-range missiles - a top priority. Livni is committed to the process with the Palestinians, but has less faith in the Syrian track. In talks with the Palestinians, though, she has made it clear that, under her, Israel will not accept any refugees. The Palestinians, she argues, cannot simultaneously demand a state and insist that their refugees be settled somewhere else. The final equation is even more complex: Any policy changes in Israel would have to mesh with the impending changes in the White House. Yossi Alpher, co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian website, "Bitterlemons," suggests that both governments might decide to prioritize the Syrian track rather than the Palestinian. "I would assume that to the extent that the Israeli government is more right-wing, it will respond to the almost inevitable American pressures on doing something about a peace process by putting the emphasis on Syria. Netanyahu preferred the Syrian track in the past, and it could enable him to avoid dealing with the Palestinians," Alpher says. This, Alpher believes, could very well mesh with new American plans. "Both McCain and Obama are bound to prioritize Iraq and Iran. Therefore, a Syrian track makes more sense for them too because it gives them dividends there. My sense is that the next American administration will come to the next Israeli government and say we give the Syrian track higher priority than the Palestinian," he maintains. Alpher acknowledges that Livni is more committed to the Palestinian negotiation, but says that, were she to become prime minister, things would change. "She doesn't have anything to do now with the Syria track, but as prime minister she would, and that might influence her thinking. She might also be influenced by what happens between her and the top Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Qurei," Alpher avers. But Alpher, a former Mossad analyst, warns that, if ignored, the Palestinian track could explode - and that, if it does, the argument for Syria first would explode with it. "Even a Netanyahu or a Mofaz would acknowledge they have to do something on the Palestinian track in terms of conflict management and hope it doesn't blow up in our faces. But what if Olmert fails in his negotiation with the moderate West Bank Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, or what he calls success is really a failure because there is no one to carry it out, and another intifada is launched? If that's what the next American president inherits, it would be very hard for an Israeli prime minister to argue that priority should be given to the Syrian track because the whole world would be aghast at the situation in the West Bank and Gaza," Alpher argues. The changes of administration in Jerusalem will not be the first that have occurred almost simultaneously with the changes in the U.S. Eytan Gilboa, of the BESA Institute for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, points to five previous cases: Johnson and Eshkol in 1963, Nixon and Meir in 1969, Ford and Rabin in 1974, Carter and Begin in 1977 and Clinton and Rabin in 1992-3. Like Alpher, Gilboa believes that both McCain and Obama will prioritize Iraq and Iran and, therefore, Syria. But he argues that this could lead to heavy pressure on Israel, no matter who the prime minister in Jerusalem is. "Whoever is elected in America will be ready to make the huge investment needed to detach Syria from the Iranian axis. And if they think that major Israeli concessions are part of the package, the Americans won't just allow Israel to negotiate, the way Bush eventually did. They will negotiate themselves, leaving Israel on the sidelines and then presenting it with the bill. They will gift-wrap it as an Israeli interest, but the basic interest will be American," Gilboa predicts. If Obama is elected, Gilboa thinks Israel will come under pressure on the Palestinian track as well. "The people around him think it is the key to all the rest, whereas McCain's people do not see the Middle East problems as interconnected in that way," he explains. Iran is the issue on which Gilboa sees the biggest tensions emerging between Israel and the United States. He believes both McCain and Obama will try new approaches, which Israel might see as futile. "For example, say Obama goes for diplomacy, which Israel sees as merely allowing Iran to buy time that could cause tremendous friction between Israel and the U.S.," he asserts. Gilboa's bottom line is this: Whoever becomes prime minister will have to adapt to the new currents in America. "American policy in the Middle East is always a constraining factor on Israeli policy. That is a cast iron principle. But the extent fluctuates. Under George W. Bush it was at its lowest. Under the new administration it will return to the more usual amounts of the past. Even a Netanyahu or a Mofaz won't be able to ignore this. There will have to be a period of adjustment." • Cover story in Issue 10, September 1, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.