New Kadima leader faces tough agenda

There can be little doubt that Shaul Mofaz is an excellent tactician, not only militarily, but also politically.

Shaul Mofaz at the Western Wall 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Shaul Mofaz at the Western Wall 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
There can be little doubt that Shaul Mofaz, the newly elected leader of the centrist Kadima party, is an excellent tactician, not only militarily, but also politically.
The former chief of staff of Israel’s armed forces bided his time as the second-in-command of Kadima’s disparate membership and worked discreetly to topple its overconfident leader, Tzipi Livni, in Tuesday’s high-profile primary election. He won two out of every three votes cast.
This victory immediately transformed Mofaz into a would-be heir apparent to incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who holds the post to which the Iranian-born, soldier-turned politician aspires. Until now, Bibi has had no rival during his current term in office and could anticipate yet another term regardless of whether he scheduled the next national election for this fall or early next year.
Unexpectedly, Mofaz emerged from the Kadima party primary as a charismatic figure whose enthusiastic supporters evidently believe he really means what he says, above all insofar as the long-overdue changes in the state’s domestic priorities are concerned.
They also are excited by his advocacy of economic reforms designed to wipe out extreme poverty and curtail excessive wealth.
One step in this direction could be to team up with the left-of-center Labor party whose chairman, Shelly Yacimovich, has indicated that she is willing to cooperate with him.
But that might not give Kadima the number of Knesset seats necessary for a viable coalition government.
It was Livni who forfeited Kadima’s opportunity to govern despite the fact that it out-polled all of its rivals in the last election. She did this by refusing to include any of the Orthodox-oriented religious parties in the coalition government that she would head.
She did not want to be subject to their political dictates or blackmail and not not to be an accomplice to the likes of incumbent Interior Minister Eli Yishai of the Orthodox Shas party who has no moral or psychological compunctions about deporting African asylum-seekers, regardless of whether their children were born in Israel, attended Israeli schools and speak Hebrew like Sabras. Without at least some of the Orthodox religious parties, she was unable to muster a Knesset majority and therefore had to give way to Netanyahu, the runner- up, who could.
Netanyahu’s goal was to take power even if this required controversial compromises on his own and his Likud party’s part.
He knows that the religious parties always want to maintain their grip on the government ministries that deal with the matters that concern them most, including maintenance of the so-called status quo on religious issues especially insofar as the prerequisites of Jewish identity are concerned.
One of Mofaz’s biggest problems as Kadima’s leader will be the ideological diversity of its membership.
Kadima is composed of defectors from the right-wing Likud and the left-of-center Labor party many of whom might now consider returning to their previous political frameworks respectively if prospects of serving in a Kadima-led government or in a government in which Kadima is a key partner diminish.
It is important to bear in mind the fact that Kadima was launched by former prime minister Ariel Sharon shortly after he deviated from the then-incumbent Likud government’s emphasis on retaining most if not all of the territory taken in the Six Day War (especially in the West Bank and Gaza Strip). He implemented a unilateral and unconditional withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, an act that ran counter to international norms (Nations that win wars do not relinquish conquered territory unless they are assured that the recipients will not use it as a staging ground or springboard for hostile military operations).
When the Palestinian gun crews that are allowed if not encouraged by Hamas to launch missiles at Israel brought civilian life in the South to a virtual standstill earlier this month forcing a million citizens – men, women and children – to be confined to air raid shelters or just stay at home and off the streets, neither Livni personally nor the party she then led admitted that the pullout may have been too hasty or simply a tragic mistake.
She reduced the importance of this issue to the lowest level possible.
On the other hand, she and her party failed to stress the need for reforms even when a grassroots movement that dramatized it filled Israel’s cities with makeshift tent colonies. If Mofaz keeps his word and tries to close the gap between rich and poor, Kadima may gain more adherents under his leadership. However, that will require a genuine personal and political commitment far beyond the predictable rhetoric suitable for a speech prompted by his success in the party primary.
Incidentally, a recent report on the distribution of income in the international community found that there are only four countries in which it the gap between rich and poor is wider than in Israel! Mofaz also will have to clarify his and his party’s attitude toward the existing and proposed Jewish settlements in the West Bank. They have been the beneficiaries of government funding far beyond the general public’s knowledge. This issue is linked to the prospects of a two-state solution to the ongoing dispute with the Palestinian Authority over the future status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Does Mofaz want Kadima to turn against this US-supported scheme? Do he and his backers support it albeit with the proviso that it will not be feasible until the Hamas regime in Gaza is removed and the Palestinian Authority regains control there – something that may never happen.
Too may crucial problems will have to be faced head-on before the voters will be able to decide whether he and his Kadima party can or should replace Netanyahu and his Likud incumbents.
Hopefully, that process will be completed during the run-up to the next national election – unless Bibi deliberately calls it before Kadima has had enough time to make up its mind.

The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.