Tzipi Livni’s ouster as leader of Israel’s official opposition party, Kadima, may be remembered as the ignominious fate of a politician who remained true to principles at the cost of opportunities. Or it may simply be proof, again, of Israel’s brutal political culture, in which infighting chips away at party leaders’ authority. Whichever it is, the new Kadima leader, Shaul Mofaz, is unlikely to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu in the next election, but his performance may shape Israel’s next governing coalition.
Israeli “centrist” parties have been remarkably short-lived. Yigael Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change and Tommy Lapid’s Shinui capitalized on a moment of festering discontent with the country’s leadership, drove a wedge between old left and right rivalries and wielded significant influence for a while. But Kadima was formed in 2005 by the incumbent himself, Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon, who was exasperated by relentless internal opposition (led by Mr. Netanyahu, the then-finance minister) to the disengagement from Gaza. The party was made up of a motley crew of new faces and defectors from Likud and Labour, leading many to doubt its longevity from the start.
Nevertheless, in 2006, Mr. Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, won a plurality of Knesset seats and formed the government and, in 2009, running against Mr. Netanyahu as Likud leader, Ms. Livni retained Kadima’s edge. (She refused to make compromises that would have allowed her to either lead the government or rotate power with Mr. Netanyahu, whose Likud won one seat less but who headed the subsequent governing coalition.)
Mr. Mofaz, a former military chief of staff and Likud defence minister, lost the party leadership to Ms. Livni in 2008 and never stopped undermining her – to the point of forcing last week’s early leadership vote. Israeli pundits recognize the pattern. Labour, in particular, was weakened by rivalries, most notably between (now president) Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. Ms. Livni’s stint as Kadima leader was dominated by internal battles rather than her Knesset opposition role, thereby contributing to a precipitous decline.
Even in the flush of victory, polls aren’t giving Mr. Mofaz much slack. Kadima’s leading edge is lost. After four years in opposition, it now trails far behind Likud, competing with a cluster of parties that vie for centre-left space on the map. In the absence of a single, strong voice on the left on either the Palestinian or domestic issues, Israel’s political discourse is dictated by right and “right lite” parties and personalities. Mr. Netanyahu consistently remains the top choice as prime minister.
But the split centre may yet make a difference in the next election (likely to be held earlier than the October, 2013, deadline), because what matters in Israel is the combined strength of the centre-right versus the centre-left blocs. Governments gain majorities through coalitions, which, in turn, define policy parameters within which the prime minister can manoeuvre. Sixty (of 120) seats in the hands of centre-left parties would force Mr. Netanyahu to bring on board parties that may force his hand on issues he now prefers to leave dormant. Because Kadima, Labour and Yair Lapid’s new party will split votes that won’t go to Likud or parties to its right, the number of their collective seats will be more important than any one of them may gain.
All three parties are focusing on Mr. Netanyahu’s Achilles heel: His personal popularity notwithstanding, more than two-thirds of Israelis are dissatisfied with his performance on social policy. Last summer’s social protest movement is vigorously gearing up for its next round and, unlike last year’s “big tent” approach, its leaders plan to target the government this time. If Ms. Livni’s focus was peace and security, Mr. Mofaz declared his will be social policy. Mr. Netanyahu may have to fight the next election on uncomfortable terrain – bread-and-butter issues that matter to Israel’s middle class.