Daniella Cheslow Multimedia Journalist

Daniella Cheslow
Hardliner to lead Israel’s largest party

Israel’s largest party has ousted its leader, Tzipi Livni, and replaced her with Shaul Mofaz, the former Defence Minister and military chief of staff.

Published at The Times of London.

Israel’s largest party has ousted its leader, Tzipi Livni, and replaced her with Shaul Mofaz, the former Defence Minister and military chief of staff.

Mr Mofaz, who has also served as an army general and chief of staff, won 62 per cent of the votes in the Kadima party’s leadership ballot compared to 37 per cent for Livni.

“We will win the political and national battles we face,” an elated Mofaz told a cheering crowd yesterday.

“In the general elections we will replace [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu’s government.”

Mr Mofaz, who was born in Iran, is a decorated military officer known for his hard-line tactics when he served as Defence Minister during the most recent Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule.

He has recently tempered his position. In recent weeks Mr Mofaz criticised Mr Netanyahu’s hawkish comments about launching a military strike on Iran, potentially without American backing. He accused the Prime Minister of making Iran’s nuclear program appear to be only an issue for Israel.

Israel “is not a ghetto,” Mr Mofaz told Israel Radio in early March. He has also advocated women’s rights and more economic equality in Israel.

Hanan Kristal, a political commentator for Israel Radio, said Mr Mofaz’s military background was critical to his election. The new leader of Kadima was “someone who gives the public a sense of security, who isn’t left-wing and isn’t running to give land to the Arabs, and who knows how react in a terrorist attack” he added.

Mr Kristal added that Mr Mofaz “is center-right, exactly where Netanyahu is” while his predecessor, Ms Livni appealed to the centre-left.

Ms Livni took the helm of Kadima in 2009 after former chairman and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert left his office mired in corruption charges.

Despite winning the most parliament seats that year, Ms Livni refused to give in to the demands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties to form a coalition. This left her out of the Government, and critics accused her of mounting an ineffective opposition. A former Foreign Minister and past lead negotiator with Palestinians, Ms Livni was named by Newsweek magazine as one of this year’s 100 most influential women.

After Mr Mofaz won the primaries, he urged Ms Livni to remain in the party. She has not yet announced her political intentions.

Mr Mofaz has among the most burnished military credentials of his rivals. Mr Netanyahu was a diplomat before entering politics, Labor’s Shelly Yechimovich was a journalist, and rising political star Yair Lapid is a television news anchor.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon founded Kadima in 2005 when his Likud party refused to support his plan for a unilateral withdrawal of settlers and the army from the Gaza Strip. Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke in early 2006.

Despite Mr Mofaz’s win, recent polls show that he faces a steep challenge in defeating Mr Netanyahu for in the elections. Many of Kadima’s supporters are defecting to the centrist Labour and dovish Meretz parties. The party has been beset by public internal fighting. Tuesday’s primary drew less than half of registered party members, a low rate for Israeli internal elections.

General elections are expected in October 2013, although Mr Netanyahu has said he may call for an earlier vote.

Photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images and published at thetimes.co.uk.