Missing the Point: Contextualizing the Results of Israel’s Kadima Primary

by Geoff Levin

It should come as no surprise that former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz’s victory over Tzipora “Tzipi” Livni in the March 27 Kadima leadership election has been widely reported abroad. Most analyses, however, have only repeated several simple themes, proclaiming the end of the Sharon–Livni era and a conservative shift in the Israeli populace. Several common analyses, which follow below, cloud the picture more than they clarify it, demanding a more nuanced look at Israel’s complicated political dynamics.

Livni’s Political Career is Over
Commentators can file their political obituaries for Livni away with those they wrote for Ariel Sharon in the 1980s, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in 1999, Defense Minister Ehud Barak in 2001, and current President Shimon Peres in 1996. Israeli leadership sometimes seems like a revolving door, and 53-year-old Livni’s political resurrection should be anticipated, if not in two years then perhaps in ten. With a population less than that of the Chicago metropolitan area, Israel has a small leadership pool and an even smaller handful of individuals that security-conscious Israelis trust with the prime ministership, Livni among them. If anything, her anticipated resignation from politics will only strengthen her long-term popularity by helping her shed her opportunistic image.

Mofaz’s Victory Marks the End of the “Sharon Dynasty” in Kadima
While Livni’s loss does mark the departure of the second of Sharon’s two chosen successors, it does not mark a shift away from Sharon’s Kadima. Sharon, like Mofaz, was an opportunistic, hard-line former Likud Defense Minister. Mofaz—known for his plan for unilateral withdrawal from 60% of the West Bank—actually marks a return to Sharon’s Kadima, which he initially formed due to Likud opposition to his 2005 plan for a similar withdrawal from Gaza. Furthermore, as the PM’s chosen successors veered more to the left than he was willing to go, Mofaz appears a more natural heir to Sharon than Livni or his direct successor, Ehud Olmert.

Livni’s Loss Signals a Further Shift Rightward Among Israelis
Only 38,500 Israelis voted in the 2012 Kadima primary out of a total national population of 7.5 million. Though this year’s election was a landslide for Mofaz, Livni only defeated him in 2008 by a hair—a mere 76 votes in a low-turnout election. Where did all of her supporters go? Rather than a mass of voters switching sides, a more likely explanation is that many who voted for Livni in 2008 and 2009 no longer feel attached to the self-proclaimed “centrist” party. While a few may have returned to Netanyahu’s Likud, many others might be deciding between the three exciting new faces on Israel’s Left and Center—Labor’s Shelly Yachimovitch, Meretz’s Zahava Gal-On, and popular news anchor Yair Lapid. While Kadima may have shifted (back) toward the right, the small segment of the Israeli public involved provides little basis for broad conclusions.

The Results Only Help Netanyahu
While Israel’s Center-Left had a lot to like in Tzipi Livni, she likely would not have been able to lead them to political victory in the next election. In 2009, Livni’s Kadima was able to attract left-wing voters excited about the prospect of electing a female prime minister and unenthusiastic about the leadership of the traditionally left-wing Meretz and Labor parties. Now that both Meretz and Labor have their own dynamic female leaders, Livni would have trouble attracting the same left-wing voters. Moreover, Mofaz, with his security credentials and ethnic Persian Mizrahi background, is better positioned to snatch voters away from Likud and Shas on the right. Rather than uniting the Left around one figure, Mofaz may also be uniquely suited to broaden the Center-Left constituency, allowing each party to play to its strengths. Just as Netanyahu won in 2009 by bringing together a divided Right after Likud’s second-place showing in the election, so too could Mofaz form a coalition with Labor, Meeretz, and Lapid’s new Atid party after the campaign is over. While Mofaz faces an uphill battle to beat Netanyahu, his chances are at least as good as Livni’s—if not better.

The Kadima Primary and the Prospects for Peace
What if Mofaz somehow beats the odds and wins, becoming Israel’s next Prime Minister? Many peace-focused Israelis, Livni supporters, and international observers are doubtful that Mofaz, a hardline Defense Minister associated with the crackdowns of the Second Intifada, could ever advance peace with the Palestinians. Though their concerns may be justified, it is worth remembering that the only prime ministers who effectively confronted the settler movement—Sharon and Rabin—had reputations similar to Mofaz. Mofaz has yet to display half the courage, boldness, and integrity of Rabin, but as Israeli history has shown time and time again, the most important steps toward peace often come from the most unlikely of places.

About the Author

Geoffrey Levin is an M.A. Candidate concentrating in Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS Bologna Center, where he also works as an Arab Spring project analyst at the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development. He will be continuing his graduate studies as a Bologna Fellow in the Johns Hopkins University Political Science department next year.

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