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Mofaz ousts Livni, targets Netanyahu

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TEL AVIV -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his fourth year in office this week facing a double challenge to his leadership, both in the domestic arena and in foreign affairs.

For the past three years, Netanyahu headed one of the most stable governments in Israel. With a comfortable parliamentary majority, he was able to conduct an independent foreign policy that shifted the focus from the Palestinian issue to the dangers of Iran's nuclear program.

The regional instability only highlighted Israel's stability.

The American mishandling of several stages in the Arab Spring, especially abandoning Hosni Mubarak and the lack of action as concerns grew about the Syrian uprising, strengthened the popular belief in Israel that "only Netanyahu" can deal with U.S. President Barack Obama as "an equal partner" and not just as an "Israeli client."

On the domestic scene, Israel handled the economic crisis with considerable success and performed, relatively, much better than many countries in the West.

This, however, is likely to change this year due mainly to two domestic developments that are likely to change the political dynamics in Israel and influence both its foreign and domestic policies.

First, the election on Monday of Knesset member Shaul Mofaz as the new head of the Kadima centrist party, thus becoming the head of the Opposition.

Second, the growing hardship of the middle class and the poor in Israel, because of the high cost of living and the way the government is handling economic policy.

Mofaz's ouster of Tzipi Livni as head of Kadima made him a more serious challenger to Netanyahu's leadership.

Born in Iran 64 years ago, he came to Israel with his poor family at the age of nine. Like most new immigrants of that period, he knew poverty, deprivation and constant struggle to survive.

Yet, he managed to finish high school, joined the army as a paratrooper and served in the most elite military units. He rose through the ranks to the top -- chief of the general staff and later defence minister in Ariel Sharon's cabinet.

During his military service, he carried out many reconnaissance assignments deep in the neighbouring Arab countries.

During the 1976 Entebbe Operation, Mofaz was the deputy of Yoni Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu's brother.

When, at the very beginning of the operation, Yoni was killed, Mofaz took charge, rescued the kidnapped Israeli passengers and brought them safely to Israel.

Mofaz never mentioned his role, leaving all the glory of the Entebbe operation to Netanyahu's brother.

As the current chairman of the influential Knesset security and foreign affairs committee, Mofaz is privy to many of the secrets of the Iranian nuclear file.

As such, he became an ally of U.S. President Barack Obama. Like Obama, he supports the policy of sanctions against Iran, and he judges that Iran has not yet reached the point of being able to build the bomb.

As a result, Mofaz supports the forthcoming negotiations with Iran and will fight, more effectively, against Netanyahu's constant push for military action against Iran.

Mofaz's rise to Opposition leader came as economic hardships are knocking on Israel's doors. Immediately after toppling Livni, Mofaz declared that, henceforth, Kadima will become more attentive to the economic hardships of the people. During demonstrations by the middle class last year, Livni was totally absent. She dealt only with foreign affairs, thinking that they were "more glamorous." She left the domestic scene to the other parties. It was a grave mistake and eventually cost her the leadership of Kadima.

Immediately after Passover, which begins Friday, Israel will start to gear up for Knesset elections, which promise to be more "noisy."

Already, we see new faces entering the scene. One of them, Yair Lapid, a popular broadcaster and the son of the late minister of justice, Joseph Lapid, has announced he will form a new party with a candidate list that excludes "old guards" but includes only new faces from the academia and business communities.

Other parties, especially Labour under the leadership of Sheli Yehimovitz, will try to recruit new faces, although the "old guards" in Labour are still strong and will fight any attempt to remove them.

Thus, the next political season in Israel promises to be not only "less dormant" but much more active and challenging. Many Israelis welcome such a change.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2012 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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