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The end of the Sharon dynasty: 5 takeaways from Kadima primaries

Despite positioning itself as the opposition party, estimates are that the hawkish Mofaz will join Netanyahu’s government following the 2013 elections.

Shaul Mofaz, elected leader of Kadima, in front of a picture of former party leader, Tzipi Livni (photo: Itzik Edri/Kadima PR CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Shaul Mofaz, 64, won the Kadima primaries decisively yesterday, beating Tzipi Livni 62%-38%. Livni chaired the party since the resignation of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over corruption allegations. Both candidates represent the Israeli security establishment: Iranian-born Mofaz was Chief of Staff during the Second Intifada and defense minister under Ariel Sharon; Livni served in the Mossad. The third candidate, Avi Dichter, who withdrew from the race last week, is a former head of the Internal Security Service, the Shabak.

1.  Voters punished Livni for both failing to excel as a leader of the opposition and for not entering the Netanyahu government and influencing “from within.” The main argument for Livni was her ability to draw more votes; she led a successful campaign in 2009 and ended with 28 Knesset seats – one more than the Likud – but recently Livni had been polling in the mid-teens, not much more than Mofaz. These polls pretty much sealed her political fate.

2.    Primaries in Israel are a direct, closed, national vote. Party members need to register well in advance and pay annual party dues. Less than half of Kadima members voted, a fact which made the party machine, controlled by Mofaz, tremendously influential. This machine will also help him in the general elections. Though it lost half of its supporters to Labor and to Yair Lapid, Kadima will not disappear – for now.

3.    Livni’s loss – estimates are that she will take a break from political life – marks the final note in the Sharon era. Ariel Sharon, who founded Kadima, kept both Livni and Olmert as potential successors, finally choosing Olmert as his number two. After Sharon was hospitalized, both Olmert and later Livni enjoyed the support of Sharon’s advisors and family. Sharon’s son, Omri – former MK who served a prison term in order to save his father from one – made a last minute effort to save Livni’s candidacy, but to no avail.

The previous decade was the Sharon era; we are now officially in the Netanyahu decade. Sharon and his people had the diplomatic preferences and the political style of old Mapai Party (this is part of the reason that they found it so easy to form a unity government with Labor people). A tendency to favor the use of military force, combined with diplomatic initiatives – whether Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza or Olmert and Livni’s peace talks – that provided them with international legitimacy. Netanyahu is more like Yitzhak Shamir, the previous prime minister to come out of the revisionist family: Relying on a coalition with the settlers and the religious circles, refusing to make concessions or enter meaningful negotiations, and extremely cautious before implementing military force. Unlike all prime ministers from Labor or Kadima, Netanyahu – soon to be the longest serving PM since David Ben Gurion – Never initiated a large scale military operation. Neither did Shamir.

4.    Shaul Mofaz’s views are a mystery. Mofaz was never considered extremely bright or articulate, but he is growing to be a skillful politician, as his ousting of Livni proved. He has criticized Netanyahu for his confrontations with the U.S., his inflammatory statements on Iran and the lack of diplomatic courage, but these usually sounded like campaign jargon, intended to position Mofaz as a statesman. He did though have one out-of-the box idea: Despite being considered as a representative of the right flank of Kadima – he is likely to join Netanyahu’s next government – Mofaz is the only leading Israeli politician to advocate negotiations with Hamas.

5.    Mofaz will be the first Sephardi Jew (“Mizrachi” or “Eastern” Jew, mostly from the Middle East and North Africa) to lead the largest Knesset party into elections. Labor had two Sepharadim as chairmen – Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Amir Peretz – but it wasn’t the largest Knesset party at the time [Correction: After Barak resigned in 2002, Labor under Ben Eliezer was indeed the largest party, with 26 seats as opposed to Likud's 19, but Ben-Eliezer lost the primaries to Amram Mitzna and didn't get to lead the party in the 2003 elections]. Curiously enough, of the three parties which lead the country, the political “home” of the Sepharadim – Likud – never had a Sephardi Jew as its leader. All Israeli prime ministers to this day were either Jews born in Eastern Europe or their descendants.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. XYZ

      A good analysis, but I have a couple of disagreements:
      (1) Many people find it surprising that the “Sefardi” party is the Likud even though it has never had a Sefardi leader. Maybe it is because the Sefardim like the Likud’s policies. The assumption made by people on the Left like Amir Peretz who claimed he would be better than Sheli Yechimovich because he would supposedly attract Sefardi voters is that many Sefardim will vote for any party as long as it has “one of their own” as the head. This is not true. Sefardim vote like everyone else, not along ethnic lines but for the party that represents their views and values.

      (2) I disagree that that political machine that brought Mofaz victory in the primay will help KADIMAH in the general election. Mofaz’s machine signed up voters who will not vote for the party in the general election. The MAKOR RISHON newspaper had an article about an influential Arab businessman who was an old friend of Sharon who had been supporting Livni but switched to Mofaz. He got 2000 members of his hamullah (clan) to join KADIMAH. He also recruited his largely Arab work force to join the party. He pointed out that 20% of KADIMAH’s membership is Arab and few of them will vote for the party in the general election. When asked why he did join KADIMAH and why he switched support from Livni to Mofaz he stated that he joined KADIMAH because it was the ruling party at the time, and he was now supporting Mofaz because Mofaz promised government jobs to his people, which Livni was not able to promise.
      Considering that the turnout in the primaries was only about 40% and that 20% of the members of the party are Arabs, we can see that they are the ones who decided who the party leaders would be and that individual KADIMAH supporters who really agree with the party simply stayed home.
      I believe this primary system is a national disgrace and a threat to democracy. Israel should go to a national primary system like that used in the US where all parties that want to have their leadership chosen by membership primaries would have their vote on the same day UNDER STATE AUSPICES to prevent ballot-box stuffing. Any registered voter could sign up to vote in the primary for ONE PARTY. This would prevent people from jumping from one party to another simply because someone is paying them to sign up. Under the current system, the political parties no longer represent any real consituency and are under the thumbs of bosses who control the party machine and who can pay thousands of people to sign up, most of whom do not even support the party.

      Reply to Comment
    2. William Burns

      That’s not actually the system used in the US, XYZ.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bill Pearlman

      Not being sarcastic. I know this site attracts actual Israelis. Why is Mofaz not considered bright? He was chief of staff.

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      William Burns-
      I presume your correction is that it is the candidates themselves for each office that are chosen in the primaries in the US.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Jack

      “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded”
      -
      Tzipi Livni after the Gaza invasion. The new leader for Kadima doesnt look brighter.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Sol Salbe

      Noam, I don’t think it is a matter worthy of a lot of research time, but my recollection is adamant that Sharon gave every indication of wishing to anoint Livni as his successor, not Olmert. He gave Olmert a job that was meaning less and which while formally meaning that you are acting PM while the appointee is away, all PMs before and after him organised their schedule in such away as to minimise the role of acting PM. It was a sop to Olmert who missed on other more important jobs. Like a lot of other human beings Sharon never considered his own mortality and expected to have a major say in the selection of his successor.

      Reply to Comment
    7. William Burns

      XYZ,

      Also that US primaries aren’t nationwide but statewide, and some states have open primaries where the voter doesn’t have to be a registered member of the party or caucuses instead of primaries. Also, turnout is usually under 40% in the US system.

      Reply to Comment
    8. XYZ

      William Burns-
      Thank you for the clarification. I come originally from California where the system works as I described it. The point is that under these American-type primaries, a person votes in whatever party primary he feels closest to, not who every pays him the most and he can’t vote in more than one party as happens in Israel. Finally, the primary is conducted under state law which is supposed to prevent ballot-box stuffing and other irregularities. I still maintain that this current system is a disgrace to Israel and it disenfranchises those people who actually do indentify with a party and its ideology.

      Reply to Comment
    9. David Bennatan

      “Many people find it surprising that the “Sefardi” party is the Likud even though it has never had a Sefardi leader.”

      The Sefardim supported Begin because of the treatment they received from the Ashkenazi Labor Party. It was strange at the time that they supported a European so fervently. I don’t know why they didn’t have their own leaders but they were sure that Begin was fierce in his opposition to Labor. I think this support carried over into recent times as the Sefardim remained loyal to the Likud.

      If my analysis is incorrect it is at least a common perception.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Ruth

      Why is Mofaz considered not too bright. Katsav was also considered stupid, and Amir Peretz too. Oh,oh……I see a pattern…….Is it because they are all sefardim or because they are working class and not intellectuals? This is the difference between Israelis and Americans. Israelis give great credence to degrees while Americans value accomplishments based on individual achivements. So a Mofaz will be admired in the States but made fun off in Israel because he does not have brilliant ashkenazi mannerisms.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Y.

      Ruth,

      I think you’re right about Mofaz being underestimated, but Amir Peretz is considered stupid because he _is_ stupid. We have some.. indirect common acquaintances (who are Sephardi, if you’re wondering) and that’s their exact opinion of him.

      Reply to Comment

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