Livni’s Leadership Faces Challenge From Inside and Outside Her Party

By Nathan Jeffay

Published July 22, 2009, issue of July 31, 2009.
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The stage looks set for a war over the future of Kadima, in which party leader Tzipi Livni could be forced to defend her leadership and the unity of the party.

She appears to be open to attack on two fronts. The first is political, with the more hawkish Shaul Mofaz — runner-up in last September’s party primary, which elevated Livni to leader — rebuilding his support inside the party. The second front is legislative, with both the national committee of Kadima and the Knesset set to consider rule changes that would put Mofaz in a stronger position.

The twist is that while Mofaz is behind the moves to change the party rules, working to change Knesset rules to strengthen him is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He is pushing a law that would enable Mofaz to break away from Kadima and take a slice of the party’s public funding with him if he can recruit just a quarter of the party’s lawmakers. Currently, Mofaz needs to take one-third of its 28 lawmakers to create his own party. The smaller number is believed to be within his reach.

Livni is furious about the move. “For the first time in world history, not only is the opposition doing all it can to bring down the government, the government is working to bring down the opposition,” she told a meeting of party activists in Petah Tikvah in early July.

The future of Kadima hinges on two questions: Is there a desire within the party for new leadership, or a breakaway faction? And if there is, is it practical?

There has been unrest in the party ever since it lost power as a result of the February general election — even though it actually won more votes than the now-ruling Likud party. It intensified after leader Livni, to the dismay of Mofaz and others, refused to enter the governing coalition in March, despite the offer of several important ministries.

Now, there are discussions within Kadima about the effect of Livni’s leadership on the public standing of the party. A poll commissioned by Israel’s Channel One TV station and released July 10 to mark 100 days of Netanyahu’s government reported that 57% of Israelis believe that Netanyahu is doing a good job as prime minister, while just 39% think Livni is doing a good job leading the opposition. In a poll released a few days earlier in the Israeli daily Haaretz, when asked who was better suited to be prime minister, 52% of respondents said Netanyahu, while only 34% said Livni.

The Channel One poll concluded that if snap elections were called, Kadima would lose five seats while Likud would lose none; the Haaretz poll had Likud overtake Kadima in Knesset strength by three mandates.

Experts are divided in their assessment of Livni’s political situation. Some view her as losing her niche as Netanyahu adopts her positions, arguing that she is left looking bitter in the eyes of the public after rebuking him for doing so.

During coalition negotiations, Livni’s office claimed that Netanyahu’s failure to endorse the two-state solution was the main hurdle to her entering the coalition. Then, after he endorsed it in June, she criticized him, going so far as to tell Army Radio in early July that the endorsement represented “the height of hypocrisy.”

Mitchell Barak, CEO of Keevoon Research, a polling firm, says the Israeli public is confused about what Livni stands for and how she plans to critique a government with policies so similar to hers. “What Netanyahu said [when endorsing the two-state solution] was enough for her to join the government — all the hurdles for her joining the government have fallen,” he said.

Barak also thinks that “she’s seen as bitter.” One factor leading to this perception is her tendency to drop honorific titles when referring to “Bibi,” as she calls Netanyahu. Political protocol, observed by past opposition leaders, would have her say, “Prime Minister Netanyahu.” Another example Barak gave was Livni’s conspicuous absence from the opening session of the Knesset summer sitting. She decided to go to Washington for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s conference, despite the fact that opposition leaders generally ensure their attendance at important Knesset events.

Gideon Rahat, a Hebrew University political scientist and expert on political parties, disagreed with Barak’s analysis. He attributes little significance to polling on Kadima, thinks that the public appeal of Mofaz is widely overstated and believes that Livni’s image as the “Mrs. Clean” of Israeli politics is still a valuable political asset that will keep her party united around her.

“Centrist parties in Israel have never survived before, and the fact Kadima is still around and that it fought a second election is a miracle,” Rahat said. “I think that as Netanyahu loses support, Livni will be in a good position to gain it.”

Tel Aviv University political scientist Dani Koren thinks that things could go either way for Livni. He said that in terms of policies, she still has a niche, as there is widespread skepticism about Netanyahu’s commitment to the two-state solution. But he added that she has an image problem, and said that a desire for stronger and more popular leadership could lead to a breakaway or to a leadership challenge. “She’s not a charismatic type of leader. Yes — she’s still Mrs. Clean and seen as rational and representative of normal people, but she just lacks a cohesive style in opposition,” Koren said.

If Kadima lawmakers do turn against Livni, Mofaz seems determined to be in a position to benefit. In July, he began conducting parlor meetings with party members across the country and Knesset meetings with Kadima lawmakers in what is being seen as a move to boost his following.

As for the probability of his success, whether through a leadership challenge that he says is on his agenda or an attempt to form a breakaway that he claims is not, much depends on attempts to change party and Knesset rules.

He is working to change party bylaws, to weaken the power of the party leader and introduce counting by hand when tallying votes in leadership elections. Current Kadima rules require computer counting of votes, but Mofaz claims that the computer was rigged against him in the election and that it would be the same situation in any future challenge.

But his main bidding on the legislative front is being done for him by Netanyahu, by way of the so-called Mofaz Law, to reduce the number of lawmakers needed to start a breakaway faction. A Knesset vote was slated to take place before the summer recess, but now it looks set to be put off until the fall.

Livni has hit back against the Mofaz Law, trying to use the legislative process to build up a parapet around her party. If the Mofaz Law passes, Livni loyalists Shlomo Molla and Majalli Whbee plan to submit a bill that would prevent lawmakers who defect to a different party from taking a ministerial position until after elections. “We know he [Netanyahu] is working day and night to divide Kadima,” Molla told the Forward.

The rationale behind the counter-law is that if there was a breakaway faction from Kadima, it probably would be one formed with the aim of joining the governing coalition in return for ministerial posts.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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