Shaul Mofaz: The new face of Israel's opposition

Wednesday, March 28, 2012 |  Ryan Jones

Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni was dethroned as head of the Kadima Party on Tuesday in a primary election that elevated long-time rival Shaul Mofaz as a future top contender for the position of prime minister.

Despite Livni's early declarations of confidence, Mofaz's victory was absolute. The former Israeli army chief and defense minister took an overwhelming 61.7 percent of the vote to Livni's 37.2 percent.

Mofaz marked his win by calling on Livni to remain in the party, and predicting that Kadima would unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the next general election. "Three years of Netanyahu have diverted us from doing the right thing, but together we will return Israel to the right path," stated Mofaz.

Many Israeli analysts expect Kadima to lose support or possibly even break apart ahead of the next election. But regardless of what happens to the party, Tuesday's election made Mofaz a far bigger player on the Israeli political scene than he had previously been.

So, just who is Shaul Mofaz?

Mofaz was born in 1948 in Tehran, Iran. He immigrated to Israel with his family in 1957, and later served with distinction as an Israeli paratrooper and anti-terrorism commando. After commanding Israel's ground forces in the 1982 Lebanon War, Mofaz studied at the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia before returning to Israel, where he was appointed head of the Paratroopers Brigade.

Mofaz served in several other senior military posts before being selected as Chief of General Staff in 1998. In the army's top position, Mofaz implemented many financial and structural reforms, but is most remembered for having overseen Israel's defensive measures during the opening years of the Second Intifada (or Oslo War). Mofaz was harshly criticized by the international community for authorizing crushing counter-attacks and physically isolating Yasser Arafat, but was largely supported by an Israeli public that was happy to have a firm army leader during such violent and troubling days.

Mofaz actually predicted the eruption of Palestinian violence, and accordingly prepared the Israeli army. His measures are widely credited for keeping Israeli military casualties low during the initial wave of terrorist attacks.

As the intifada dragged on, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon felt it was important to keep Mofaz at the forefront of Israel's defensive efforts despite his term as IDF chief coming to an end. Sharon decided to appoint Mofaz as defense minister even though he had not been out of the army long enough to legally run for public office.

Mofaz later officially joined Sharon's Kadima Party and has been actively contending for the leadership position ever since Sharon fell into a coma.

While Mofaz has, like Livni, expressed his readiness for a two-state solution that sees the Palestinians take control of most of Judea and Samaria, he is seen as far more conservative on the issue of Jerusalem, far more security-minded, and far less likely to make compromises that result in an existential threat to the Jewish state.

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