Shaul Mofaz, potential statesman, deserves a break

By Roni Schocken

Congratulations to Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz. I’ve been fond of Mofaz for a while now. Ever since he served as defense minister in Ariel Sharon’s government during the disengagement from Gaza, Mofaz has been building himself up as a serious politician and perhaps even a statesman. It was during the disengagement that Mofaz morphed into a political dove, and despite the takeover of Israeli politics by the right-wing settler movement, he has stood his ground.

Then in 2009, during a period of political stagnation, he introduced a gutsy plan for a peace process and when asked, did not rule out negotiating with Hamas. In his plan, Mofaz emphasized that “our control over another people, and the burden of responsibility and occupation, will come to an end in a clear and concrete way…” The plan also contains that magic number, the one that terrorizes Israeli politicians: ’67.

Shaul Mofaz, as a former IDF chief of staff, could have placed himself comfortably within the ideological zone of typical generals-cum-politicians – like Ehud Barak, Moshe (Bogi) Ya’alon and others – but he opted not to. In early 2011, even before the social protests, Mofaz began developing a plan for social-economic reforms with a team of eight young researchers from the economic, legal, and public policy spheres, led by Yishai Mishor. The plan called to increase in the employment of Israeli Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, make higher education more accessible, offer housing solutions and a more equal health plan, and more.

In that plan, Mofaz did not shy away from slaughtering one of the most (un)sacred cows in Israel’s history: the defense budget. “As head of planning in the IDF, Chief of Staff, and Defense Minister, I have resolved that we can effectively decrease the defense budget by NIS 4 billion per year, without damaging the IDF’s readiness,” he said in an interview to TheMarker (Hebrew), an economic daily newspaper.

Quietly, step-by-step, Mofaz has also proved himself skilled at politics. In his first campaign for the leadership of his party, he lost the internal Kadima elections to Tzipi Livni by a slim margin. In the second recent round, he claimed victory in a knockout. While everyone eulogized him as the tragic future loser of the 2012 elections, he saved Kadima and himself, and prevented – together with Netanyahu – unnecessary elections, which ultimately would have maintained the status quo.

All the frustrated political opponents and journalists who feel “tricked” into believing that elections were around the corner are left with little to do but obsess about Mofaz’s “credibility” problem. He said he wouldn’t leave the Likud party, and he left. He said he wouldn’t join the Netanyahu government, and he joined.

But so what? Who cares if Mofaz is in Kadima or in Likud? What exactly is the difference between them anyway? What matters is policy, not politics, and Mofaz deserves credit as a politician with a clear-cut agenda. It’s only beneficial that as of today his agenda is now part of the coalition.

Up to now, former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni got the credit for being credible – because she did not join the Netanyahu government, refusing to give billions of shekels to the ultra-Orthodox. But Livni is the one who stole votes from the left with the Kadima campaign “Either Tzipi or Bibi” then did little as opposition; under her leadership Kadima was among the initiators of the “Boycott Law”; under her watch, Kadima initiated and helped pass a draconian amendment to the libel law and the selection committees law (which de facto prevents Arabs from living in certain communities) and let’s not forget the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. After repeatedly abusing and neglecting her role as opposition leader and misguiding her supporters, her bitter response to the Netanyahu-Mofaz move, would be outrageous, if it hadn’t been so insignificant.

Shelly Yacimovich and Yair Lapid are considered the two big losers from the coalition deal.  But neither has a sincere or bold agenda anyway. As an MK, Yacimovich has not touched upon the occupation, nor the peace process, the anti-democratic legislation, nor the Arab minority in Israel. She is a social-democrat whose emphasis on the democratic side of the equation is marginal. It’s not clear how she will promote significant economic changes, since she is unwilling to confront her stronghold of support, the Histadrut.  On the other hand, Yair Lapid brought no message at all to the table. Lapid is waning, without leaving a trace of policy or ideology on any issue.

Netanyahu and Mofaz can do great things in the coming year, ranging from legislating an alternative to the unsuccessful Tal Law for drafting Haredim into the army, through to the peace process, to which I believe Mofaz is sincerely committed. Yet the most significant change this duo can undertake is to break away from the suffocating grasp of the settler right, which is threatening to destroy Israeli democracy. This will be the real test for Netanyahu and Mofaz. The rest doesn’t matter nearly as much.

Roni Schocken is a candidate in the Tel Aviv-Berkeley LL.M. program (2012) and in the Harvard Business School MBA program (2014). He has clerked for the Supreme Court and served as the director of the government relations department in The Abraham Fund Initiatives.