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Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s Unlikely Kingmaker

Could a politician who almost disappeared in to obscurity be poised to take up one of the most powerful positions in Israel?

It is safe to say that as chairman of the Kadima party Shaul Mofaz hasn’t been the greatest of successes. It’s hard to believe but Kadima was actually the biggest party in Knesset after the last election, yet in the poll 16 days ago it almost failed to pass the electoral threshold, and in the final reckoning scraped in with two seats.

To Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is busy building his coalition, every mandate counts, and ever since the election he has apparently been keen to get Kadima on board. Now, with US President Barack Obama set to visit Israel and focus attention on the peace process, wooing Kadima has become more attractive for Netanyahu — and he may well be prepared to make him Defense Minister.

Kadima has a reputation as centrist and pro-peace, and can help with the challenge of giving international credibility to his government on issues of peace. Though the party only has two lawmakers, it’s a pro-peace name on the list of coalition parties, which will allow him to present his government as more centrist. If he also persuades the six-seat Tzipi Livni Party to join, as expected, he will have notched up two pro-peace factions in his coalition — despite the fact that their smallness would compromise their ability to promote a diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

As for Mofaz’s “price” for joining the coalition, it could actually serve Netanyahu’s agenda. Mofaz has very strong defense credentials, as a former Chief of Staff, and could be a preferable option for Netanyahu than the other well-known former Chief of Staff who is a candidate, Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon. Netanyahu is believed to strongly dislike Ya’alon.

Mofaz, on the other hand, is someone that Netanyahu could happily work with. Yes — he’s more cautious on a possible strike on Iran than either Ya’alon or Netanyahu, but this could work to Netanyahu’s advantage. Netanyahu may find talking to the West about Iran easier with a cautious Defense Minister from a centrist party by his side.

There’s another attraction to Mofaz for Netanyahu, which relates to the massive financial pressures he is facing. Unlike many defense-oriented politicians, Mofaz takes the view that a large cut in defense spending is possible without undermining preparedness.

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