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Power struggle over opposition leadership; Netanyahu manoeuvres to benefit

It is no secret that the power struggle within Israeli politics has taken a sharp turn recently. The picture is not bright for the Israelis as the conflict’s intensity reflects contradictions within the Israeli state and indicates clearly the magnitude of the challenges ahead.

The struggle that has dominated the Israeli political scene over the past two weeks came to a head with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to persuade Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni to join his government as “minister without portfolio”. Kadima is the largest opposition party in Israel; in fact, at the 2006 elections it won more seats than any other party but Netanyahu’s Likud was able to patch together a coalition to form the government. It is the size of her bloc within the Knesset that gave Livni the confidence to reject the Prime Minister’s offer.


Netanyahu has said that he will “split” Kadima if he doesn’t get his way. If he is successful, that could see the centrist party disappear as a serious player on the political scene.

However, the real challenges facing Kadima come from within the party rather than outside. Shaul Mofaz, the former transport and defence minister, launched a sharp attack on Livni in an interview with Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz last week. Mofaz accused Livni of being weak and unable to make difficult decisions. Other members of Kadima have expressed their desire to desert the party and join Likud.

Addressing a press conference following her decision not to join the government, Livni mentioned both the internal and external pressure she is facing. “I will continue to take the right decisions, but not under threat from outside or from inside,” she said.

Livni, therefore, finds herself in a very difficult position and her options are limited, which is exactly what Netanyahu wants. She could change her mind and join the government but her role as minister without portfolio would not reflect the power of the largest party in the Knesset; she would have no part in making government policy and decisions. Alternatively, she could accede to Mofaz’s demand for a leadership election; Livni’s supporters within Kadima believe that if his bluff is called by an immediate election Mofaz would not stand. There are no signs that Livni will consider such a move. Even if she succeeded in pushing Mofaz out of the party completely, he would take some support with him, and the loss of seven Knesset members would sink Kadima.

Mofaz is looking to win the party leadership and sees this as a vital step towards becoming prime minister one day. He needs time to organise his support, however, so a snap leadership race will not suit him. In the meantime, he has resorted to using character assassination to discredit Livni and holds her responsible for the poor performance of the party over the past nine months. In a recent interview, he was clearly questioning the party leadership in an attempt to weaken Livni and mobilise supporters to press for a new leader. From his point of view, Netanyahu’s move provides Mofaz with an opportunity to dislodge Livni.

In addition to the leadership issue, Mofaz has called for changes to the party constitution to end what he calls the “dominance of the party leader over the party’s institutions”. Although this could be seen as a progressive move in the context of party development, it is meant to increase the pressure on Livni. Mofaz has been very keen to link the problems facing Kadima with the lack of democracy in what he believes is a party ruled by one person. He has promised to rectify the situation if he is elected as leader, and stressed his intention to unite the party, adding that he would have no problem working with Netanyahu. By effectively accepting the prime minister’s offer to join the government, Mofaz is embarrassing Livni without committing himself to any political promises.

Mofaz has called for the reactivation of the peace process with the Palestinians and on a previous occasion has called for talks with Hamas. Observers believe that such expressed views do not represent any firm conviction; Mofaz is known for his fierce opposition to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. As an Israeli army officer, he was responsible for implementing brutal policies against the Palestinians, including the destruction of homes during the first Intifada in the late eighties and, as Chief of Staff, for the destruction in Jenin refugee camp during the second Intifada.

Benjamin Netanyahu has several objectives for his latest political manoeuvres. He wants to destroy his rival Tzipi Livni, weakening her party in the process to eliminate any possible threat to his political survival. He also needs Kadima, even if weakened, to participate in the government as it faces internal and external challenges which require a broader representation of the country’s political parties.

Israel is facing pressure from the international community to change its policies regarding the Palestinians and the occupied Palestinian territories. Without a broad support base it is hard for the Israeli government to deal with this pressure. Also, Netanyahu’s government thinks that the international community has so far failed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but he will need more support if he is to give serious consideration to taking unilateral action.

Even Sergeant Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier being held captive by Hamas in Gaza, is part of this struggle between Likud and Kadima. In order to strike a deal for his exchange with Palestinians prisoners in Israeli jails, Netanyahu will need support from Kadima. Tzipi Livni, however, sees Shalit as a useful tool to put pressure on the government. To many observers, though, the prime minister has made his mind up and doesn’t really need support from the opposition; his main intention in this political tussle is to eliminate Livni and Kadima as a serious threat to his position.

Ha’aretz columnist Yossi Sarid thinks that Netanyahu could have offered Livni up to four ministerial posts and two seats in the inner security cabinet, knowing that she could not accept. Sarid believes that Netanyahu wants to bring so-called hawks in Kadima close to him to support his position against any progress in the peace process. This would, said Sarid, “bury the peace process”.

Interesting times, but as usual it looks as if the real losers will be the Palestinians and their hopes for a viable independent state.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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