Israel's new opposition head pledges social reform

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Israel's newly elected opposition leader pledged in two interviews published Thursday to work for social reform, saying he would "restore dignity" to the country's working class.

Shaul Mofaz's remarks are part of his push to bill himself as a centrist alternative and draw supporters away from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the next parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for October 2013.

Mofaz trounced Tzipi Livni in a Tuesday vote to become chairman of Kadima Party, the largest in Israel's parliament.

"I will represent the sane, democratic and liberal public," he was quoted as saying by the Haaretz daily. "Kadima will restore dignity to the working class."

In the interview, Mofaz also pledged to lead the next social protest movement. Over the summer, Israelis turned out in record numbers to protest the spiraling cost of living, but that movement died down, without any clear achievements.

"I want to build Kadima as a centrist, nationally oriented, social issues party that will remain in the opposition," Mofaz said in a separate interview with the Maariv daily.

A social agenda would help distinguish him from Netanyahu, who is known for pursuing liberal economic policies.

However, Mofaz, a military man, is better known for his security background than a social agenda. Before entering politics, Mofaz was the military chief of staff; he served as defense minister during the second Palestinian uprising in the last decade.

A poll released by the Dahaf polling institute and published Thursday in the Yediot Ahronot daily found that he has yet to make an impression on Israeli politics.

If a general election were held now, Mofaz would win 12 seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament, compared to 29 for Netanyahu's Likud party and 18 for Labor, according to Dahaf. The poll surveyed 500 Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Kadima, which currently holds 28 seats in the 120-member parliament, has been hemorrhaging support to Labor and the dovish Meretz. It would also be expected to lose some seats in a national election to television personality Yair Lapid, who has yet to form a political party.

Kadima was founded in 2005 when the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defected from Likud to carry out a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke months later.

Under Livni, a former foreign minister and lead negotiator with Palestinians, Kadima leaned to the center-left of the Israeli political map. She got the most votes in the 2009 general elections but could not form a coalition after refusing to make concessions to religious parties in order to join her government.

Livni also kept Kadima out of Netanyahu's coalition, saying he was not pursuing peace strongly enough with the Palestinians.

Some expect Mofaz will ultimately join Netanyahu's coalition -- though the new Kadima leader said he expects to replace the Israeli prime minister, not join him.

"I will not be surprised if under Mofaz, Kadima will find itself in the coalition," said Jacob Shamir, an expert in political communications at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

Shamir also said he has little faith in Mofaz leading the next protests. During the summer, "we didn't see him, we didn't hear him, and therefore, it's not very credible," Shamir said.