“Tzipi or Bibi”, the slogan that made Tzipi Livni the head of Israel’s largest party, had a certain ring of stylishness. In the days leading up to the 2009 Israeli election, “Tzipi or Bibi” was the slogan that convinced hundreds of thousands of left-leaning Israelis to abandon the more ideologically pure parties, and vote for Tzipi – that is, for the Kadima Party – knowing full well that Livni was really the only politically viable alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.
But as of today, it is “Shaul or Bibi”, as in Shaul Mofaz, former IDF Chief of Staff, former Defense Minister, former Deputy Prime Minister, and now the head of Kadima, who won the Kadima primaries yesterday by a comfortable majority.
“Shaul or Bibi” doesn’t sound as good, and doesn’t offer the same contrast: Livni – long after leaving the Likud Party with Ariel Sharon – was good at speaking to left-leaning voters. Kadima was formed as a center-right party, a platform for Sharon to rule Israel without having to pursue the policies of the hard right.
Livni made Kadima a center-left party. Not because she adopted the policies of the left – but rather because she was good at communicating with the left, felt at home in her city of Tel Aviv, among the voters of Labor and Meretz and Shinui. Political beliefs aside, she is one of them. Mofaz is not. Mofaz is a general, an Iran-born Israeli. He immigrated to Israel at the age of nine, lived in far-away Eilat. His rise was slow, and people tended to underestimate him – he has this way of doggedly beating expectations, as when he became IDF Chief of Staff, a selection that seemed quite astonishing to many observers at the time.
Mofaz can be a dangerous foe, as Livni has just learned. She beat him three years ago by the tiniest of margins – 400 votes or so – but he never quit trying to unseat her. His battle with Netanyahu will be different though, as it is not quite clear where Mofaz might find the pull of votes from which to draw support; many of Kadima’s voters had already left it for other parties, and while Mofaz still can correctly argue that he is the only viable alternative to Netanyahu, it is not at all obvious that such alternative will seem appealing to the left-leaning voters of 2009.
Mofaz could be an excellent candidate when it comes to competing for right-leaning voters. Had he stayed in the Likud Party, he could have tried to unseat Netanyahu; had he stayed in the Likud Party, he could have tried to succeed Netanyahu. Can he be attractive enough for those voters wanting to replace Netanyahu? Can he convince them that he is really a dove in a hawk’s skin, a sheep in wolf’s clothing? That he is really the new leader they were all awaiting since the miserable demise of the Ehud Barak government more than a decade ago? The image and the numbers don’t quite add up.
One could easily sense the rejoicing of Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, and that of Meretz leader Zehava Galon, as they respond to Mofaz surfacing as Kadima’s leader. He can’t compete with them for the women’s vote as “Tzipi” was able to do, and he is not well positioned to become the fashionable darling of the young, restless, trendy, left-leaning, urban voters who made it all happen for Livni. These voters are going to turn to other parties – be it Labor, Meretz or Yair Lapid’s new party that is not yet fully formed. Mofaz will have to rely on a different strategy to Livni. Or – again – beat expectations and make all the pollsters and pundits look silly.
More on Israeli politics: