- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2008

TEL AVIV | Israel’s ruling Kadima Party is struggling to define its identity as its senior members battle Wednesday to succeed its discredited leader, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The party’s 70,000 members will choose between Shaul Mofaz, an ex-army chief known as a security hawk, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the highest-ranking female politician in Israel since former Prime Minister Golda Meir and a close collaborator with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on peace talks.

The choice underlines how the party founded by Ariel Sharon has had difficulty identifying what it stands for apart from straddling the center of Israel’s political map. Mr. Sharon has been in a coma since early 2006

Mr. Mofaz’s positions — warning against dividing control over Jerusalem with the Palestinians or giving back the Golan Heights to Syria — echo the stances of right-of-center Likud party.

On the other hand, Mrs. Livni’s support of territorial compromise to preserve Israel’s Jewish-majority democracy sounds like rhetoric taken from the left-of-center Labor party.

“The big question right now is what does the Kadima Party represent,” said Meron Rappaport, a former political commentator for the leftist Ha’aretz newspaper. “Even the Kadima voters don’t know what they are.”

The new Kadima leader will try to win a vote of confidence from Israel’s existing parliament, the Knesset. If he or she fails, that will force a new election and Mr. Olmert — assuming he is not indicted for corruption - will remain as caretaker prime minister

Winning the mantle of Kadima leader requires at least 40 percent of the vote in a field of candidates that on Tuesday included two long shots: Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter. Though Mr. Mofaz is thought to have a better get-out-the-vote operation, opinion polls give Mrs. Livni a double-digit advantage and also predict that she would fare better in a general election.

If he wins, Mr. Mofaz is expected to invite Likud into a coalition. Israeli commentators have reported that the far-left Meretz party is hoping that Mrs. Livni will pursue it as a partner.Labor would likely join a Livni government but not a Mofaz one.

With the country reeling in a tide of political corruption scandals — Mr. Olmert is under investigation for taking cash illegally from a U.S. businessman, among other charges — Mrs. Livni has touted her reputation as a clean operator and straight talker.

“We messed up,” Mrs. Livni, a former officer in the Israeli Defense Forces and the Mossad spy agency, recently confessed to party activists.

The daughter of a family of so-called revisionist Zionists, who dreamed of expanding the Jewish state to the east side of the Jordan River, she has reinvented herself as a supporter of the two-state solution.

“The Land of Israel is something that everyone can share,” she told the newspaper Yediot Ahronot recently. “There has to be a partition” with the Palestinians.

If that sounds like the Israeli left, that’s not surprising, said Moshe Konforty, 36, a Livni supporter.

“There is not such a big difference between the parties,” he said. “A lot depends on the leaders.”

Mr. Mofaz has contrasted his experience as a security decision-maker with Mrs. Livni’s thin resume in military affairs. At a recent campaign meeting in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, Mr. Mofaz echoed the rhetoric of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who as prime minister in the late 1990s stressed the need for “reciprocity” rather than a process based solely on Israeli territorial concessions.

“Every side gives, and every side gets,” Mr. Mofaz said.

Such comments have opened up the Iranian-born former military chief of staff to criticism that his candidacy would make Kadima indistinguishable from Likud in a general election, but supporters don’t seem to mind.

“He’s even more of a hawk than [Netanyahu],” said Nahum Mualem, a Mofaz organizer and a former Likud activist in Jerusalem. “He’s a right-wing person. You can’t take that away from him.”

Started as a breakaway from Likud in 2005 after Mr. Sharon faced opposition to his plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, Kadima was supposed to appeal to those disillusioned with both the leftist ideology of “peace now” and the right-wing vision of a greater Israel. Mr. Sharon’s aura as a veteran military and political leader was key. Even though he succumbed to a stroke before the 2006 election, his visage was prominent then on all campaign materials.

Mr. Olmert, a former Jerusalem mayor, campaigned on promises to continue Mr. Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal policies, this time from much of the West Bank. But that policy was abandoned after Hamas took over Gaza Strip last year and both Gaza and Lebanon - which Israel left unilaterally in 2000 when Labor was in power - became the launch pad for missile attacks.

Kadima, which recruited professors for its parliamentary slate, was also supposed to represent a change from the purported cronyism and corruption of the Likud political machine. But in addition to Mr. Olmert, three other top lawmakers have been the target of state investigations.

“Any way you look at it, [Kadima] was far from fulfilling their campaign promise,” said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “The reason why they are still alive is due to the disappointment with the other major parties.”

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