Israel’s new Opposition leader

Israel's new Opposition leader

The triumph of Shaul Mofaz, a former Israel Defence Forces Chief of Staff and Defence Minister (for a bio of Mofaz see here) over former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in the Kadima party primaries this week has sparked a flurry of commentary and reactions inside Israel.

Widely noted by pundits was Mofaz’s poor name recognition abroad. That, together with Kadima’s weakened stature in the face of centrist challenges by the revamped Labour party and Yair Lapid’s newly-launched party, has put a damper on analysis over Mofaz’s win outside the region.

In Israel, Kadima owed much of its success to support from the Centre-left and Left, which found the party’s focus on peacemaking with the Palestinians appealing.

That’s why Yossi Verder’s commentary in Wednesday’s Ha’aretz was important, as winning the endorsement of Israel’s dovish camp – and Ha’aretz‘s centre and left-leaning analysts – will be key to whether Mofaz can gather enough voters under Kadima’s big tent to make a strong showing in the next election, planned for no later than next year.

Verder exonerates Mofaz from those who would call him a right-winger, but says that his work is cut out for him convincing people of that fact.

Mofaz has an image problem. He is perceived by many as a cold and unfeeling general, belligerent and right-wing. While it’s true he is a general, he is far from unfeeling, far from being a right-winger, as the political plan he formulated two years ago showed, and he is not a warmonger either. He is a moderate, no less so than Livni. His mission now is to sell himself to a sceptical public.

The Middle Eastern Arab media, however, is not convinced, recalling Mofaz’s role as IDF Chief of Staff during the height of the Second Intifada, but deems him irrelevant due to his party’s declining political fortunes.

In Israel, interest is mainly centred on where he will steer Kadima from here, especially on the option of joining a long-discussed national unity government.


While Mofaz had slammed Livni in the past for nixing a unity government with the Likud party, Attila Somfalvi at Ynet expressed doubt Mofaz will join a unity government until after the next election.

For the time being, Mofaz does not intend to join Netanyahu’s government. Mofaz will not start his term as Kadima chairman by seeking coalition jobs. He doesn’t need a bunch of angry journalists writing that the only thing he wanted was a government-issued car. This can be done after the elections, and Mofaz does not shy away from admitting that he is an enthused fan of unity governments.

In the Jerusalem Post, Gil Hoffman speculated about Mofaz’s role in the next government – with the overriding assumption that Mofaz lacks the time to build up his credentials for a credible run for prime minister in the coming elections.

In the next government he could play a central role and have a moderating presence. That is something Livni could not have done because of the animosity between her and Netanyahu.
Returning to the Defense Ministry or becoming foreign minister could be a stepping stone for Mofaz to move ahead politically and eventually become a serious prime ministerial candidate.


Also in the Post, Veteran foreign corespondent Jay Bushinsky enumerated some of the tough decisions ahead for Mofaz as he puts his own personal stamp on Kadima’s agenda, on issues such as the peace process, settlements, and social justice.

Meanwhile, despite having been born in Iran, there are no signs Mofaz has particularly dovish views in terms of the military option against Iran, notes Times of Israel political analyst Raphael Ahern.

A native of Tehran – he arrived in Israel when he was 9 – Mofaz’s view on Iran seems in line with Israel’s current leaders. “We cannot let Iran have a nuclear capability,” he said back in early 2008, adding that if diplomacy and sanctions won’t dissuade the Islamic Republic from its nuclear ambitions, “we have to say loud and clear that all the options are on the table.”

Meanwhile, a poll conducted after the Kadima vote appeared to show that some of Livni’s supporters have now transferred their support to Labour’s new leader, Shelly Yachimovich.

Interestingly, in spite of his cool reception in the Middle Eastern Arab press, Mofaz saw remarkably strong support in the Kadima vote from the Israeli Arab community. A quarter of the Kadima primary voters were Arab, and 71 percent of them threw their support to Mofaz.

“Mofaz is a man who listens and respects both peoples, and I felt he has a genuine desire to fight for all citizens of Israel, both Jews and Arabs, with no discrimination,” said [a former Livni supporter Malek] Farij. “We can only promote projects through Mofaz…and it’s enough that he’s against the war with Iran.”

– Ahron Shapiro