General Opposition Encountered
Apr 26, 2012 | Amotz Asa-El
For three years, what initially seemed like an inconclusive election has actually produced one of the most solid governments Israel has had in decades. Not only does it face no effective threat from the political Opposition, the coalition has so far been plagued by no major scandal, and the cabinet has seen only one resignation – a marginal minister who was appointed Israel’s next ambassador to China.
Though his faction won one seat less than what became the main Opposition party, Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition of five mainly conservative parties has proven durable. One major cause of this stability has been that the Kadima faction, which won 28 seats as opposed to Likud’s 27, was largely paralysed soon after the 2009 election, as its leader and her number two locked horns; not with Netanyahu, but with each other.
The struggle between former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz became nasty and also split their Knesset faction down the middle. But last month it came to an end, and in a way few predicted, as the Opposition Leader was trounced in a primary election by a margin of 62% to 37%. Livni, 53, has since disappeared from the public eye and is widely expected to retire from politics.
Exactly where Livni made her worst mistakes en route to this shellacking is the subject of some debate – some argue she should have joined Netanyahu’s coalition, others that she focused too much on foreign affairs, and yet others say she should have challenged Mofaz to a public debate on domestic issues with which he is unfamiliar.
Whatever the answer, this question is now academic – Livni, with her well-to-do background, is history, at least as a prime ministerial contender. Humbly-born Mofaz, on the other hand, emerged from his sweeping victory as a force to reckon with, a battle-tested general who, while an underdog, can be counted on to fight for the premiership tooth and nail.
Born in Teheran six months after Israel’s birth, Shahram Mofazkar arrived with his family nine years later in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost tip, where his name was Hebraicised to Shaul Mofaz and his long journey north, geographically and socially, soon began.
Having worked in construction at age 10 and in the seaport at 12, Mofaz was sent to a boarding school in the Jezreel Valley, which entailed a daylong trip via several buses whenever he came home for the weekend. At the school Mofaz met children from the farming elite that established the Jewish State – kids who grew up in handsome houses several times larger than the shoebox in which his family lived on the Red Sea shore. And like his classmates he would wake up before dawn to milk cows, then attend classes, and in the evening return to the cowshed for milking. “You were being tested,” he later recalled, “by the responsibility you displayed in milking, harvesting, and plowing.”
It was a baptism of sorts, and Mofaz thought the process of his admission to the Israeli elite had been completed when he made it into the paratroopers, and returned to visit his high school proudly wearing the elite unit’s trademark wings and red beret. However, he later failed the Officer School entry exams repeatedly, and would have been discharged from the military as a sergeant had it not been for an ambush one fateful night by the Jordan River.
Having spotted a terrorist infiltration, Mofaz ordered two privates from his squadron to cover one flank while he and another soldier crawled the other way, reached the terrorists from their rear and killed them. After that, he was admitted to Officer School, and graduated with distinction.
Mofaz then climbed the military ranks, serving among other positions as the deputy to Lt.-Col. Yoni Netanyahu during the Entebbe Raid in 1976. Then again, even after serving as commander of the Paratroopers’ Brigade and eventually rising to the rank of Major-General, Mofaz was an underdog candidate for Chief of Staff in 1998. But, in a surprise move, he was appointed by then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during his first term in office.
That is how Mofaz found himself commanding the Israeli army when the Second Intifada broke out in fall 2000. The challenge of low-intensity warfare was novel, but Mofaz once again surprised, by launching Operation Defensive Shield, which moved the battle into enemy territory and shifted the initiative to Israel’s hands.
Still, all the surprises of Mofaz’s career dwarf compared with what happened after he finished his 36-year-long military service. After leaving the military in August 2002, Mofaz had been a civilian for only a few weeks when Labor left Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s coalition for reasons that had nothing to with Mofaz. Sharon needed a defence minister quickly, one who would be obedient, efficient, and pose no political threat. Newly available political virgin Mofaz was perfect.
That is how the man who had not been a politician for even one minute found himself overnight in the thick of the political fray as a wartime Minister of Defence.
Mofaz may not have been brilliant as Minister of Defence, but he also made no major mistakes. His job was to keep the army going and live in Sharon’s shadows, both of which he did well, while quietly striving to become a seasoned politician, a task which many believe he has yet to complete.
Mofaz’s first big political test came three years after he entered politics, when his mentor split the Likud and established Kadima. Mofaz’s intuition was not to join Sharon, a preference that might have been forgotten had he not declared publicly “The Likud is my home and one does not abandon one’s home.” Yet, several days later, Mofaz did just that. Mofaz found a place in Kadima, but the speed and ease with which he violated his own public promise made him come across as disingenuous and unsophisticated.
His second failure was an attempt to remold his political profile, from one focused on military and security issues, to something of a social crusader. As Transport Minister in Ehud Olmert’s cabinet he seemed bored by that complex agency’s challenges, and could hardly hide his longing for his previous position as minister of defence. After the 2009 election, when Kadima entered Opposition, he ended up heading the Knesset’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee, hardly the place from which to nurture a social agenda.
Still, as Opposition Leader Mofaz, who has an MBA, vows to focus on social issues, and being the quick and determined learner everyone acknowledges he is, he can be expected to arrive at next year’s general election ready for a big economic debate. The only problem is that he will be opposing in that debate the economically savvy Netanyahu to his right, and the socially appreciated Shelly Yachimovich of Labor to his left. Indeed, polls indicate that Netanyahu would defeat Mofaz handily, with Kadima losing at least a third of its Knesset seats if an election were held today.
Wedged between these two poles Mofaz might be tempted to pursue a third course – populism. Bandying promises for expanded social spending and reduced taxes may work well with the center-right electorate that Livni failed to attract, but it will put off the center-left voters who gave Kadima most of its votes. Moreover, the 760,000 people who voted for Kadima under Livni, most of whom shun primary elections, see little difference on peace issues between Mofaz and Netanyahu, despite the former’s calls for talks with Hamas.
One way for Mofaz to attract votes from both right and left might be by confronting issues surrounding Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority, whose frequent failure to join the army and the workforce is disagreeable to most Israelis. Mofaz has hinted at such a direction when he said “it’s not fair that my kids serve five years in the military [as officers] while the ultra-Orthodox don’t serve at all.”
Then again, such rhetoric is common among secular politicians. To sound more dedicated to this cause, Mofaz will have to promise to do either what Sharon did, when he left the ultra-Orthodox parties out of his coalition, or what David Ben-Gurion wanted to do – namely change the system so that small parties remain on the margins of the political process. Chances right now seem small that Mofaz would pursue such a strategy, least of all successfully. Then again, Israel’s new Opposition Leader has shown over the years – and not least in the Kadima primary in March – that he knows how to ambush, persevere, come from behind, pounce – and win.