The emergence this month of Shaul Mofaz on the Israeli political scene as the new head of the centre-left Kadima party is a welcome development. It carries with it the promise — still only a faint one, however — that a reinvigorated and politically-successful Kadima could bring about a softening, even a reversal, of the expansionist, war-mongering policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist, ultra-orthodox and right-wing Labour coalition partners.
For the moment Netanyahu seems immovable. In office since 31 March 2009, he has become Israel’s longest serving prime minister. His skilful mobilisation of Israel’s supporters in the United States — in the lobbies, the Republican Party, the media, in conservative think tanks and especially in Congress — have allowed him to brow-beat US President Barack Obama on Middle East issues, winning the plaudits of the right in Israel and the US.
But Israeli politics is notoriously volatile. A realignment of the political landscape — as has often happened in the past — is by no means impossible. Led by Mofaz, who has now replaced the politically incompetent Tzipi Livni, Kadima could evolve into an effective counter-weight to Netanyahu’s Likud and its far-right partners.
Netanyahu’s aggressive posturing against Iran, his potentially dangerous humiliation of Obama (who may seek revenge if re-elected next November), and his relentless drive to expand colonies in Palestinian territory, while paying only faint attention to the growing social and economic disparities in Israeli society, have already aroused considerable anxiety in some sections of the electorate. This anxiety could find political expression at Israel’s next elections, due to be held before the autumn of 2013, but which may well be held earlier.
Kadima (Forward in Hebrew) is ripe for a make-over. It was created by Ariel Sharon in 2005 when, having broken with Likud hard-liners, he rallied moderate Likud and Labour members in support of his plan to disengage from Gaza. But when Sharon suffered a stroke, it was Ehud Olmert who led the party at the 2006 elections, and then formed a coalition government when Kadima won 29 out of the 120 seats, becoming the single largest party in the Knesset. At the 2009 elections, Kadima again won the most seats, this time led by Tzipi Livni, but it went into opposition when Netanyahu formed a Likud-led government together with Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Israel Beiteinu, the ultra-orthodox Shas, and Ehud Barak’s right-wing Labour faction.
Since then, Netanyahu has done his utmost to crush Palestinian aspirations for statehood, and has spurned all Arab peace overtures. Evidently a ‘Greater Israel’ fanatic, he has made clear that he prefers land to peace. Meanwhile, decades of right-wing propaganda have convinced many Israelis that the Palestinians and other Arabs are out to kill them, and that Israel has no partner for peace.
This is the powerful current of ideas that Mofaz, now 63, will have to defeat if he is to lead Israel towards peace with its Arab neighbours and away from the belligerent policies of the Netanyahu era. For this task, he has several valuable political assets. As a former military chief of staff and defence minister, he is well-positioned to reassure a jumpy Israeli public that he can be counted on to protect the country.
Mofaz’s background is another potential asset. He is not part of Israel’s Tel Aviv elite, largely of European origin. On the contrary, he is an Iranian Jew, born in Tehran, speaking Farsi, who at the age of nine was brought to Israel by his parents and was brought up in poverty. In an interview with Ethan Bronner of the New York Times (published in the International Herald Tribune of April 7-8, 2012) he explained how this harsh background had allowed him to understand the hardships and frustrations of the many Israelis who struggle to make ends meet in a country — to cite his own words — where ‘the rich get richer and the poor poorer.’
Mofaz was always considered something of a right-winger. But, as the new head of Kadima, his expression of liberal and enlightened views on Israel’s social and economic inequalities, as well as on the two main controversial issues of peace with the Palestinians and war with Iran, comes as an agreeable surprise.
Iran has clearly been a subject of life-long interest for him. One senses in Mofaz a readiness to deal with Iran on a business-like basis, far from the apocalyptic hysteria of Netanyahu, who never tires of demonising Iran and depicting its (so far non-existent) nuclear bomb-making programme as an ‘existential’ threat to Israel and a menace to the whole of mankind.
“The greatest threat to the state of Israel,” Mofaz told the New York Times, “is not nuclear Iran but that in 30 or 50 years it would become a bi-national state. So it is in Israel’s interest that a Palestinian state be created.” He criticised Netanyahu’s focus on Iran’s nuclear programme which, he said, had distracted attention from more important priorities, like making peace with the Palestinians, ending colony building in much of the West Bank and reducing the country’s inequalities. He said he believed Israel should keep the West Bank colony blocs but give the Palestinians 100 per cent of their territorial demands by swapping land. He went on to say that borders and security could be negotiated in a year and that tens of thousands of colonists would leave their homes with the proper incentives. Those who remained would be forced out.
In the opinion of many observers, Israel in recent years has made several serious strategic mistakes. It attempted to destroy Hezbollah by its invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and it attempted to destroy Hamas by its ferocious assault on Gaza in 2008-9. Both endeavours failed. The Gaza operation, in particular, earned Israel the opprobrium of much of world opinion and shattered its close relations with Turkey.
By repeatedly threatening to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israel has blackmailed the US into imposing crippling sanctions on Tehran in the evident hope of closing down Iran’s nuclear activities altogether. This unrealistic objective is unlikely to be achieved at the talks due to open today between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the so-called P5+1.) At the same time, the current Syrian crisis has aroused Israeli hopes that the whole Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah ‘resistance axis’ could be brought down, and Israel’s unchallenged supremacy re-established — but this, too, is an unrealistic objective.
With the Palestine problem in dangerous limbo, and with the ever-present danger of war breaking out with Iran, Israel urgently needs a voice of reason such as that of Shaul Mofaz.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.