Netanyahu Strengthens His Hand

The stunning victory of former defense minister Shaul Mofaz in the Kadima Party’s primary last week was significant for two reasons: It may have marked the end of US favorite Tzipi Livni’s political career and may help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consolidate his power.

In 2009 former foreign minister Livni’s Kadima won more seats in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, than Netanyahu’s Likud did. But Livni couldn’t or wouldn’t form a coalition with ultra-Orthodox and extreme settler parties, and Netanyahu did.

So, Kadima went into opposition, where Livni was an ineffectual leader.  Mofaz, 63, challenged her and won a decisive victory in the primary, with over 60% of the votes cast. He now will lead Kadima into elections, scheduled for next year.

Shaul Mofaz campaigns in 2009 with then-leader of Kadima Tzipi Livni in background. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Tzipi Livni.

Mofaz, who served as defense minister to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is an Iranian-born Jew whose family emigrated to Israel in the 1950s. He was chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces during the second Intifada, which followed the collapse of peace talks spearheaded by President Bill Clinton at Camp David in 2000. (Mofaz and Sharon opposed the concessions backed by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak.)

Mofaz’s tough tactics in dealing with the Palestinian uprising were criticized by liberal Israelis and the “progressive” international community but were generally supported by the Israeli public.

Despite his military background, Mofaz is not a stereotypical hardliner. He won the Kadima nomination on a campaign of domestic reforms. (There was an important Israeli summer following last year’s Arab spring.) He has even cautioned against recklessness in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.

Likud leader Netanyahu, of course, has repeatedly raised the specter of an attack on Iran to destroy its capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Just as vocal has been Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the same Barak who pushed the peace initiative with President Clinton. He has left Labor with several others who will remain in the Netanyahu government. The new Labor leader, Shelly Yachimovich, is an untested head of a party that has seen its better days.

With polls suggesting a big drop in Kadima’s seats in next year’s elections from 28 to the high teens, Mofaz may wind up doing what Livni never would—enter the next Netanyahu government. If he does, he may ironically be a force for moderation within the corridors of power (he’s also the only major Israeli leader who favors negotiating with Hamas).

But when push comes to shove, I’d suspect that like Barak he would get with the program. Mofaz may look like he’s reviving Kadima, but he may ultimately do the opposite.  As the independent Israeli journalist and blogger Noam Sheizaf wrote:  “The previous decade was the Sharon era; we are now officially in the Netanyahu decade.”

Like it or not, the next US president, be it Mitt Romney or a re-elected Barack Obama, will have to deal with that reality.

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