Whose Party Now?


Editor’s Note: This story was published before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s annoucement Wednesday that he would resign after the Kadima primary next month.

As Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni arrived in Washington this week for Palestinian peace talks, her chief opponent in next month’s Kadima Party primary warned her not to discuss core issues.

“Anything that is decided now is very problematic, because it is happening before the change in the government and against the background of instability on the Palestinian side,” Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz was quoted as saying.

Mofaz and Livni are seen as the two front-runners in the Sept. 17 primary. Candidates have until Aug. 24 to enter the race for the post now held by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert has not said whether he would seek re-election, but sources close to him reportedly said he would announce his decision shortly.

Based upon “public expectations and debate in Israel, the message from the Israeli public is that Olmert should resign as soon as possible, not run for Kadima leadership and clear up the criminal probe [he is facing],” said Yarom Meital, chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Meital added that he would “not be surprised if Olmert decided not to run.”
But Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said he “wouldn’t count Olmert out.”

“He has never ducked out of a fight and unless he is indicted, I think he is going to run,” he said. “Olmert has come from behind before and it is going to be a tightly fought race.”

Although Livni had been initially favored to win the primary, Mofaz appears to have caught up and “may surpass Livni,” Steinberg said.

The Kadima race appears to be between Livni, widely respected for her integrity, and Mofaz, with wide security experience. But Meital noted that “this is Israeli politics and anything could happen.” He said Livni enjoys strong support among the Israeli public in general, but Mofaz is “even stronger than Livni within the Kadima Party.”
He said Mofaz has been signing up Israelis for party membership so they could vote in the primary.

“He has a very detailed program of how to get a majority within Kadima,” Meital said. “If you take into account his organizational capabilities within Kadima, Mofaz’s chances are bigger than Livni’s.”

But whether the primary winner could garner enough support from other parties to put together a new coalition government and replace Olmert as prime minister without new elections remains to be seen. Such a move would be a huge advantage in the next general election, which appears likely to be held next spring, according to Steinberg.
“Running as prime minister is hugely beneficial,” he said. “Olmert had that advantage.”
Olmert became acting prime minister after Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke in January 2006. Kadima, the party formed by Sharon, won the largest bloc of seats — 29 — in an election three months later, and Olmert formed a new government in May of that year.

Should Mofaz win, Meital said it is possible that Livni would leave Kadima and join with Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who is now the defense minister and the expected Labor Party candidate for prime minister.

“She would run as Barak’s second and make Labor stronger,” Meital said. “She has a record as one who is not corrupt, and one who is doing a good job as foreign minister. Barak running with Livni would make Labor more attractive to the center in Israel. If Barak won, he would make her deputy prime minister and foreign minister [posts she now holds]. If she stays with Mofaz, no one can guarantee he would offer her anything should he win. They don’t trust each other and have not worked well together.”
Meital noted that while Livni has pursued the diplomatic route in trying to convince Iran to halt its nuclear development efforts, Mofaz has taken a more hawkish stance and last month publicly threatened military action, telling a newspaper that Israeli strikes on Iran looked “unavoidable.”

The next general election would then give Israeli voters a choice of Mofaz, a former armed forces chief, Barak, Israel’s most highly decorated general and a former prime minister, and Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party, the former prime minister who is the current leader in the polls.