By the time this report reaches the AJC family, the results of the Kadima Party primary—a vote of the 74,000 members, electing a new chairperson to replace Ehud Olmert, first as the head of the party and then (presumably) as prime minister—will be known. But it is already possible to give a sense of what is at stake and of the issues in contention, and hence, of the meaning of the possible outcome (which, as I write, remains unpredictable). Four ministers of the present government put their names in nomination, but only two—Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, once a Likud “princess” and now a leading proponent of the two-state solution with the Palestinians; and Shaul Mofaz, minister of transport and a former chief of staff of the IDF and minister of defense under Ariel Sharon—have realistic prospects. The two others, talented as they may be—Meir Sheetrit, an experienced politician typical of the leaders Likud once raised in development towns of the Negev and Galilee; and Avi Dichter, the former head of the Internal Security Service (Shin Bet)—are hanging in, either because a withdrawal would wound their pride, or because they hope, perhaps realistically, that neither Mofaz nor Livni will achieve the necessary 40 percent, and they will then hold the key to the outcome of the second round.
Several personal issues have dominated the campaign so far—which was conducted, certainly in Israeli terms, in a restrained fashion. (The sharpest attacks on Livni came not from Mofaz, but from Ehud Barak, who would rather face Mofaz in a future general election than vie with Livni for the votes of the center-left.) Some would seem to have been lifted, in straight or inverted ways, from the American political playbook—and indeed, professional campaign strategists came over the water, and some of the Obama-McCain rhetoric was knowingly inserted into the Israeli political scene:
All of these, obviously, have more to do with the candidates’ personalities than with their substantive positions (where did that ever happen before?), but at least on one major issue, already raised in these briefings, there was a significant difference that surfaced during the campaign. Livni, as her present role practically requires, is to some degree a true believer in the value of multilateral solutions; she still argues that UNSC Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Lebanon War, was the best we could have done under the circumstances. She fears a shift against the legitimacy of Israel if the conflict with the Palestinians undermines the possibility of a two-state solution. Mofaz, on the other hand, is less concerned with “world opinion” and more with Israel’s inner strength—and its special relationship with the United States, in which he plays an active role. (In addition to the Transportation portfolio, he was put in charge of the U.S.-Israeli strategic dialogue, formerly known as JPMG.) This is a difference that may come to have a bearing on the three crucial questions we face: the Syrian negotiations, the Palestinian “deal” now being brewed by Olmert and President Mahmoud Abbas, and above all, the Iranian nuclear challenge, whose long shadow looms over all our affairs.
- Gender: Obviously, Livni, as a woman, can lay claim to the empathy of those who seek to smash the glass ceiling, bearing in mind, however, that in Israel this would not be a first (and that Golda Meir, larger than life and quite lovable in the Broadway version, was not universally admired when she was in power, and remains, at best, a controversial figure, whom many have never fully forgiven for the debacle of 1973). Mofaz, for his part, can lay claim to the fact that, as chief of staff of the IDF, he presided over a clear and unprecedented expansion of the role of women in the military. He was implementing a new law pushed through the Knesset by Prof. Naomi Hazan (at the time, an MK for Meretz) that required him to do so. But he certainly carried it out with a degree of enthusiasm, and in his present position has appointed women as CEOs of two of the Transport Ministry’s most important agencies.
- (Military) Experience—or what has come to be called (in another “borrowing”) the “3:00 AM phone call” issue; and in Israel, these tend to come with particularly unpleasant news. Clearly, Lt. General (res.) Mofaz has more of that kind of experience on his resume than Lt. (ret.) Livni, who served a short while in an operational capacity in the Mossad, has been a quick study on national security issues at the Foreign Ministry, but has yet to be tested by anguished life-and-death decisions under pressure (a point that Olmert, who bears a grudge for her failure to stand by him, has often raised, in more than a whisper). Her supporters, and there are many, counter by warning against the tendency to rely too much on military experience. True, Amir Peretz was a terrible choice as defense minister in 2006, but Livni, a thoughtful person with a cautious and creative mind, is a rather different proposition.
- Ethnicity: In the crass usage of some Israeli political commentators, Livni has been described as “white”—of Ashkenazi origin, that is—whereas Mofaz, born in Tehran and exposed in his youth to the complexities of the ethnic gradations in Israeli society, speaks of his own “social sensitivities” (and his role in programs such as Atidim, aimed at promoting young leaders from the periphery of Israeli society) as code denoting his “Oriental” origins. The “ethnic genie” (hashed ha-‘adati) was supposed to have been put back in the bottle, now that Israeli society has evolved and so many—including Mofaz—have married outside their group of origin, adding new layers to the mix. But to a limited extent, the pairing of Livni against Mofaz (and Dichter vs. Sheetrit, “Yekke” vs. Moroccan) has lifted the lid somewhat.
It may be a while, however—even if a winner emerges in the first round—before the new leader of Kadima actually faces these challenges. Although Olmert is committed to resigning once the results are in, he will not be replaced in office (unless he declares himself incapacitated, which he has no intention of doing) until after his elected successor puts together a new cabinet. It will only be after Rosh Hashanah that she or he will be formally asked to do so. (President Shimon Peres, whose function it is to charge the party leader with this task, will only return from the General Assembly in New York on the eve of the High Holidays.) Then there will be a four-week period during which the effort to form a government can be made, extended by two more weeks if necessary—but if she or he fails, the country will face a general election, probably in March 2009, and Olmert might still be in office until then (and legally empowered to act like any prime minister, so long as the process of “hearings” delays the submission of an indictment against him). Not the best way to confront a highly complex period, rich with changes, opportunities, and dangers—not least, because of the global economic turmoil—but this may well be the way the affairs of state will unfold in the coming weeks and months.