Kadima – one step forward, two steps back

Sometimes, Tzipi Livni may learn very soon, you lose by winning. Certainly, that feeling is creeping up on the woman who is now just an Ehud Olmert resignation away from at least temporarily taking over as prime minister.


Late Wednesday night, exit polls had given Livni a comfortable 10-percentage-point victory over her nearest competitor for the Kadima party leadership, Shaul Mofaz, in a result that roughly mirrored surveys done in the past two weeks. By early Thursday, however, the actual vote count revealed a much closer race, with Livni winning by only slightly more than a percentage point, and angry accusations from Mofaz campaign staffers over various (minor) election day innuendos suggesting that a recount, or even a runoff, might be in order.


No matter: Mofaz, who was modest and sportsmanlike in defeat, nonetheless shocked Livni and the rest of the country by immediately announcing he was taking a “time-out” from politics, and refusing to meet with the new Kadima head for what she had hoped would be a show of unity and strength for a party that is desperate for both.


For Mofaz, the move showed his indignation over failing to win over more of the public. After gaining widespread respect first as the IDF chief of General Staff and then as the defense minister (having joined Likud immediately upon his release from service) during the suppression of the second intifada, Mofaz saw his personal standing severely eroded thereafter.


In the move from Likud to Kadima, which Mofaz made at the last minute and only after first declaring Likud his eternal home, Mofaz lost his spot as defense minister in the political deal that brought Labor into the governing coalition. That deal had a direct influence on the Second Lebanon War, as labor agitator extraordinaire but defense ingénue Amir Peretz was clearly overwhelmed by the task. Mofaz, by then the lowly transportation minister, was unable to make his objections heard while Peretz and Olmert were grossly mismanaging the war. In the fallout of the fighting, Mofaz was unable to capitalize on his “I told you so” potential – partly because he chose not to attack his party leader, Olmert, and colleague Livni, for their roles in that debacle.


Now, having lost a party primary that paves the way to the prime ministership, there is very little left for Mofaz to do in politics. He has squandered his cache as a military man, and he lacks the charisma or the breadth of knowledge and/or experience to believably run on any other platform. The animus he obviously feels for Livni precludes the chances of him serving as her attack dog and “Mr. Security.” Undoubtedly he will try to spend the next two or three years as the symbolic executive of a hi-tech company, giving speeches on security for handsome sums, until he finds an opportune time to make a triumphant return to the Knesset. This very formula has worked well for Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak after similar embarrassing defeats.


What does this mean for Livni, her party, and the political landscape in Israel? Lots.


Firstly, it leaves Livni with little in the way of support for her tenure as head of the country when Olmert does step down (he is expected to do so on Sunday). This will make it more difficult for her to form a coalition that would keep her government in power until the next scheduled general election, in 2010. Already, Netanyahu, who has topped polls as the likely victor in an election ever since the end of the Second Lebanon War two years ago, is calling for a general election as soon as possible. He has laid low for these past two years, wisely biding his time, but now he smells blood.


For Kadima, Livni is a less than ideal candidate. As foreign minister under Olmert, she can not escape blame for the diplomatic failures of the Second Lebanon War. At first she called for Olmert to step down, but she quickly backed away from that aggressive stance, so it will be difficult for her to prove, despite her obvious contempt for Olmert, that she represents change. Indeed, she is trying desperately to do so – but this means, in effect, that she has to convince Israelis that the Kadima of which she has been a part is one which she does not endorse, and at the same time, convince them that the party will be something else entirely, if only the voters will give her a massive mandate to lead.


But what will Livni’s platform be? She has given little in the way of concrete policies regarding the Palestinians, the Syrians, the Iranians, Hizbullah – not to mention economic policies, which are bound to play a significant role in the next general election.


Mofaz could have been returned to his role as the strong defense element of Kadima’s campaign, but now that possibility is gone. This is bound to hurt Kadima against Likud, which will likely welcome into its fold Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon – the man who replaced Mofaz as chief of General Staff. Ya’alon, who was replaced – by Dan Halutz, who would resign in disgrace over the Second Lebanon War – because he did not approve of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan for the Gaza Strip, has been a fierce critic of this government. He’ll provide Likud with a bona fide general and a man who is not “tainted,” either by the disengagement or the Lebanon war.


At the same time, Labor will likely offer a platform heavily in favor of greater government spending on welfare and social services; it may turn to former Navy commander Ami Ayalon, a staunch dove who will push for concessions to the Palestinians and the Syrians as well. Meanwhile, the Likud will likely offer voters tax breaks rather than expanded welfare, and a much more hawkish approach to the Palestinians and to Syrian peace talks.


So, in an election that will feature two separate options, one clearly dairy and the other meat, Livni’s Kadima is bound to come off as pareve.


Right now it is anything but a sure bet that Barak will remain Labor’s choice to run for the premiership, but if he is, and the race is between him, Netanyahu and Livni, then Livni’s only chance is to position herself as a new and change-bringing leader against two men who were sent packing from the prime minister’s office in failure. That may not be enough to win, but it’s really the only card she’s got.


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