To succeed Olmert, Israel's Mofaz opts for macho politics

But the ruling Kadima Party, which votes on a new leader Wednesday, may not buy into the former army chief's security policy.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
NEXT IN LINE? Shaul Mofaz addresses his supporters in Beersheba.

Shaul Mofaz borrowed a paratrooper battle motto for his Kadima primary campaign to succeed Ehud Olmert as party leader and possibly prime minister: "After me!" The slogan is apt for a famed commando officer who kept his cool when trapped behind Syrian lines during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

As voters go to the polls Wednesday, Mr. Mofaz is hoping that his hawkish reputation and experience as army chief and defense minister responsible for quashing the Palestinian uprising will appeal to voters. He hopes to garner support from Israelis jittery about leaving threats from Iran and Gaza to untested politicians.

Currently, his rival, Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, has a double-digit lead in the polls. If Mofaz is able to overcome that, his supporters and critics expect him to align the centrist Kadima with the right-wing security hard-liners of the opposition Likud Party.

"There are enemies that want to destroy us," he said at a meeting of party supporters in this Jerusalem suburb last week. "We need strong leadership to lead Israel to safe waters. Give your vote to the one who you believe has the courage to make decisions and the ability to carry them out."

Mofaz's campaign is predicated on replicating the classic comeback of the Israeli soldier-politician. In 2007, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, another ex-chief of staff and former prime minister, performed a similar feat. He reclaimed the Labor Party leadership from a former trade union leader blamed for botching the 2006 Lebanon War.

Unlike Mr. Barak, Mofaz champions the rhetoric of the Israeli right. The Jewish state, he told his Jerusalem audience, is threatened by Islamic militants in Gaza and Lebanon. He declared the division of Jerusalem to be an impossible compromise. He also argued that giving up the Golan Heights in negotiations with Syria would be perceived as an invitation to Iran to the banks of the Sea of Galilee.

Mofaz has a reputation for saber rattling. When the Israeli army surrounded the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the height of the second Intifada, he publicly urged then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to assassinate him. In recent months, his threat of a preemptive attack on Iran's nuclear program bumped up oil prices. Ignoring surveys, he predicted this past week that he would win the primary election with 43.7 percent of the vote.

But Mofaz's message has not resonated with Israelis, according to opinion polls that suggest he would fare worse than Ms. Livni in a general election against Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak.

"He's using old politics and running an old-style campaign by frightening voters [and saying] that only he can handle the security problem," says Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. "This is a kind of politics that already failed in Israel. The Israeli public is tired of former military men. It reflects a fatigue from the macho leadership of former generals for so many years." Dr. Ezrahi added that Mofaz's personal style is significantly more restrained than his political posturing.

Military experts also suggest that the plain-spoken, transportation minister has made a career of being underestimated. Ron Ben Yishai, the military commentator of the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, says, "When you have to run an organization properly, [Mofaz] knows how to do it, and he knows how to motivate people to do it. His leadership is quiet leadership."

Still, Livni, who would be the first woman since Golda Meir with a chance of becoming prime minister, has stirred more interest. And while Mofaz is expected to reach out to religious and right-wing parties, Livni is expected to look toward the other end of the political spectrum. If the new party leader fails to build a coalition, it will force a general election.

Created as a Likud breakaway after Mr. Sharon was rejected for the 2005 Gaza pullout, Kadima aimed to appeal to those disillusioned with Israeli left's "peace now" ideology and the right's ideology of Greater Israel. Mofaz can take comfort in the fact that Israeli primary polls have a volatile track record. With the support of unionists and local party activists, he has a strong get-out-the-vote operation, which could be the deciding factor.

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