- Shaul Mofaz has defeated Tzipi Livni in Kadima party leadership election, scoring an impressive landslide win which defied expectations of a close result.
- Mofaz, born in Iran, is a former IDF Chief of Staff and defence minister, who has called for a more urgent approach to reaching peace with the Palestinians, launching his own peace plan in 2009.
- Mofaz faces significant challenges to turn himself into a credible alternative to Netanyahu as Prime Minister, with Kadima’s polling numbers have sunk dramatically in the last twelve months.
- Mofaz stressed domestic social issues in his campaign, and he will need to establish a credible social agenda, alongside his security-diplomatic agenda, to succeed in the intense competition for Israel’s centre-ground voters.
What was the outcome of the vote?
Shaul Mofaz has won the election for the leadership of the centrist Kadima party, Israel’s leading opposition party and the largest party in the Knesset. Despite predictions of a close race he, defeated incumbent Tzipi Livni with a commanding majority of 61.7% to Livni’s 37.2%. Around 40,000 Kadima members came to the polls, 41% of the total membership. It was a higher turnout than the previous leadership race in 2009, which Mofaz lost by a handful of votes.
Who is Shaul Mofaz?
Mofaz, 64, is a former IDF chief of staff and defence minister. He was born in Iran in 1948 and came to Israel as a nine-year-old. His military career included spells as an infantry commander, as commander of forces in the West Bank, and head of the planning branch of the general staff. In 2002 he retired from the IDF and was appointed minister of defence by then-Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon. When Sharon quit Likud in late 2005, Mofaz initially announced he would run for the vacant leadership of Likud, but then decided to join Kadima. He currently chairs the Knesset’s powerful Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee.
On peace and security issues, Mofaz follows the proactive approach adopted by Ariel Sharon in the final years of his premiership. As defence minister, Mofaz himself played a key role in implementing the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which included the evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip and Northern West Bank.
In 2009, he produced his own peace plan. The plan called for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state with interim borders, and simultaneous negotiations on a final status agreement based on 1967 lines, with border adjustments to incorporate the settlement blocks.
At the same time Mofaz has very strong security credentials, which are important for any Israeli prime ministerial candidate. As chief of staff and then minister of defence during the Second Intifada, including the intense period of Palestinian suicide attacks on Israel in 2002-3, Mofaz took an uncompromising position. He ordered IDF troops to return to Palestinian towns in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. He supported the construction of the West Bank security barrier, which was a significant factor in reducing terrorist attacks.
How did Mofaz beat Livni?
Having lost to Livni in the Kadima leadership election in 2009, Mofaz has spent the last three years preparing to challenge her again. In January, Mofaz pressured Livni into an early leadership contest, and ran his campaign with the help of some of Ariel Sharon’s ‘ranch forum’. This small group of influential advisors, pollsters and political strategists was responsible for the creation of Kadima in 2005. His campaign manager, Lior Horev, is from this group.
His victory was largely the result of good field work. Mofaz’s team worked hard to secure the support of ‘vote contractors’, local political figures who represent their constituencies to the national party, particularly for the relatively high proportion of Arab and Druze members of Kadima.
His comprehensive margin of victory is a stinging rejection of Tzipi Livni. Under Livni’s leadership Kadima emerged the largest party from the 2009 elections, with 28 seats to Likud’s 27. This was despite the corruption scandals that had engulfed its former leader Ehud Olmert. But the party began to sink dramatically in the polls around the time of the social protest movement in the summer of 2011. With the party focussed on a diplomatic-security agenda, Livni appeared out of touch and irrelevant with respect to the new social-issues agenda.
Shaul Mofaz was elected on an agenda which spoke more about social and economic issues than his default issues of peace and security, having launched his own economic plan a few months ago. In his acceptance speech last night, he talked of a ‘new social agenda’, and focussed on the need to find a system of national service which would see Israeli 18-year olds from all sectors of society serve their country. He also referred to the need to reform the electoral system.
Livni, who served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister from 2006 to 2009, and led Israel’s peace talks with the Palestinians, will now have to decide whether she sees a future in the Kadima party, or whether she will retire from politics.
Where next for Kadima?
Mofaz takes over leadership of Kadima at its lowest point in the polls since its creation in late 2005. One poll predicted only 12-15 seats for the party. However, Mofaz will be reminded of the fate of Likud, which recovered from a historic low of 12 seats in the 2006 Knesset to take 27 seats in 2009, and to form the government.
Mofaz faces a series of challenges. Firstly, he will have to deal with the bad blood in the party. Splits within the party became increasingly bitter and personal as the leadership campaign wore on, with two clear camps forming behind the two main candidates. With the contest now decided, there will be a spotlight on whether key party figures, including Kadima Council chair Haim Ramon, and former justice minister Tzahi Hanegbi, will retain their influence in the party under Mofaz.
He will also need to claw back some of the electoral support the party has lost during three years of opposition, and convince the electorate that he is a credible alternative to Netanyahu as Prime Minister. Recent polls suggested that the party under Mofaz would win even less seats that it would under Livni. It will be interesting to see if this impressive victory will change voter perceptions of Mofaz and lead them to take him more seriously as a prime ministerial candidate.
Mofaz will also have to go on a large-scale membership drive to stand a chance at the next general elections. Most Kadima members joined when the party was formed in 2005, and although they remain formal members of the party, many have drifted away. Since there are no annual dues, membership does not imply any ongoing commitment to the party. The Labour party is aware of this, and launched a campaign this week featuring former Kadima members who have recently joined Labour.
Perhaps Mofaz’s most difficult task will be to reshape Israeli politics in the way that Ariel Sharon initially conceived Kadima. When Sharon created Kadima in 2005, he planned a ‘consensus’ manifesto that would appeal to the centre-ground of Israeli opinion and create a bloc which would permanently be in power. However, finding that space in the centre-ground of Israeli politics is not easy. There is a long history of parties that tried to find a gap between the centre-left Labour and centre-right Likud, but faded after a term or two. Until now, no party has been able to create a long-standing centrist bloc.
The challenge has become more complicated in the last three years. Firstly, the ruling centre-right Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has accepted the principle of a two state solution, thereby stealing some of Kadima’s centrist ground on the security-diplomatic agenda. Secondly, the grass-roots social justice protest movement which swept the country last summer has shifted the focus of the political agenda. Kadima, which before now had focussed primarily on the peace process, needs to find a way to respond credibly to the Israeli centre-ground’s resurgent interest in domestic social issues. In doing so, Kadima is competing in an increasingly crowded field, with Labour, and journalist turned political candidate Yair Lapid chasing the same voters.