Mofaz’s controversial political manoeuvre may be part of a plan to radically undermine the ultra-orthodox stranglehold on power.
The Israeli media was full of criticism and outrage yesterday (May 8 2012) at the perceived “dirty trick” carried out by Netanyahu and Mofaz in the early hours of Tuesday morning when the whole political map was redrawn, a massive 94 seat national unity government was formed and early elections were called off at the last possible moment.
The indignation by analysts and commentators has been particularly pronounced against Mofaz, accusing him of acting purely for personal interests and losing all credibility in what many see as a spectacular turnaround. Israeli television has played ad nauseum previous statements by Mofaz just days before claiming he would never form a government with Netanyahu and calling the Prime Minister a “shakran” (liar).
Most analysts from Haaretz, Ynet and the like have provided a very superficial explanation for Mofaz’s motivations in joining the Netanyahu government, arguing that he simply desired to be at the centre of power at all costs and took the move to postpone his Kadima party’s inevitable poor showing at the next elections. Others have speculated that a national unity government will provide the added support Netanyahu needs to launch a military strike against Iran.
One cannot help but see a hint of racism in the unrelenting criticism that Mofaz has been subjected to. One commentator on Channel 2 News for example said that Mofaz had behaved like “a stall-holder in Mahane Yehuda (market) selling his produce at bargain-basement prices before Shabbat-eve closing time.” Any serious observer of Israeli politics and society can detect that these comments poke fun at Mofaz’s Mizrahi-Persian background, something which is unacceptable in this day and age. The pundit obviously did not bother to delve more deeply into why Mofaz would accept the lowly cabinet position of Minister without Portfolio or in Hebrew “sar bli tik” (literally minister without a bag) when he could have held out for so much more. (More on this later).
This is not the first time such thinly veiled racism against Mofaz has been voiced in the Israeli media. Months before during Mofaz’s primary race with Tzipi Livni, Haaretz opined in Hebrew that he did not stand a chance at gaining the Kadima chairmanship as such an outcome would prompt an immediate “white flight” of Kadima members from the party. Alas, this Haaretz analyst was proven wrong: in the end Mofaz triumphed over Livni and the “white” members did not flee in haste from the “dark” Iranian menace of Mofaz as the commentator so brazenly predicted.
But of course some of the worst racism against Mizrahim in Israeli society has come from some in the Ashenazi Ultra-Orthodox community and the harmful teachings of their rabbis. This was the chief reason for example that the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef left the Askenazi United Torah Judaism party (formerly Agudat Yisrael) to form Shas. And here on the subject of the Haredim, I return to the question of why Mofaz was prepared to accept such a minor cabinet position in order to join Netanyahu’s coalition. In my view, Mofaz saw a historic opportunity to remove the perpetual stranglehold of the Ultra-Orthodox over Israeli politics. For the first time in a long time (perhaps in the whole history of the state), the Haredi parties can no longer blackmail the Israeli government by threatening to bolt from the coalition if their financial demands are not met. They simply do not have a significant enough number of seats with Kadima sitting in the government. Lieberman too loses his kingmaker privileges and cannot hold the government to ransom over settlements if he desires.
While the talking heads endlessly discuss the renewal of the Tal Law, the real prize lies in changing the electoral system. If Mofaz and Netanyahu can use the 18 months and their new-found majority to push through dramatic electoral reforms (to something resembling a British-style first-past-the-post system for example), they can change the whole rules of the game, and eliminate the Ultra-Orthodox’s disproportionate influence permanently.
Mofaz knows he may not stand a chance facing the Israeli voting public at the next elections with his credibility still in tatters, but at least he knows that if he works hard to implement far-reaching electoral reforms, he can safeguard the future for his children by undercutting the exploitative power of the Ultra-Orthodox for good. If he achieves this, the Israeli public may forgive and see that maybe it was not political expediency which was motivating him after all.