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Mofaz snatches victory from defeat with Netanyahu alliance
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's opposition chief Shaul Mofaz is no stranger to drama: in 1976 he helped lead the commando rescue of airline passengers held by Palestinian hijackers in Entebbe, Uganda.
But the political guile he showed on Monday night, when he saved his party from electoral humiliation and pushed the door to peace talks with the Palestinians ajar, stunned an Israeli public uninspired by his two-month-old leadership of the party.
Often ridiculed as a charmless waverer, Mofaz, 63, secretly crafted a deal to form a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, both, like him, once special forces commanders.
Most members of his Kadima party, which chose him to replace former foreign minister Tzipi Livni in March with an eye on his security credentials, were unaware, bracing for a snap election in September called the day before.
Livni, once cast as Israel's "great white hope", had been chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians and ran on a ticket of clean politics.
That helped Kadima win the last election in 2009, but prevented her forming a majority with ultra-Orthodox parties. Mofaz has now taken Kadima into government with them and Netanyahu, who he had called a "liar" as recently as January.
Alongside such truculence, it was quiet determination, endless patience and a focused ambition that helped the Tehran-born Mofaz climb through the ranks of Israel's military and politics, long dominated by Jews of European decent.
Politicians and commentators greeted his move with a mix of admiration and derision. "Last night was, without any doubt, Shaul Mofaz's night," said Arik Bender of Maariv newspaper.
"He saved the ship of Kadima from sinking at the very last moment, assured himself a prominent position in the government, and secured coalition favors for his party."
Shelly Yachimovich, the Labour party leader propelled to the head of a weak opposition with Mofaz's defection, accused him of selling out Kadima, which had been set to lose two thirds of its lawmakers in an early poll.
"This is a covenant of cowards," she said of the alliance with Netanyahu.
In challenging Livni, Mofaz pledged to "lead a new social order" to fight for the nation's poor, citing his own rise from the tent camp where his family was housed upon immigrating to Israel.
On Tuesday he said he did the deal to advance Kadima policies, including addressing economic grievances and promoting negotiations with the Palestinians.
"Entering peace negotiations was an iron condition for forming the unity government," said Mofaz, who has a hawkish history on the Palestinian issue but has pressed for peace talks for several years.
Mofaz will now serve as vice premier and join key ministerial forums including Netanyahu's inner council, with influence on fateful decisions such as whether to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
"The prime minister and I will be judged on results, not promises," he said, noting that their personal rift had been "put behind them".
RISE TO THE TOP
Mofaz became defence minister in 2003 after five years as armed forces chief, which capped a 35-year military career. His role in the Entebbe rescue was largely overlooked by an Israeli public which lionized the other commander, Netanyahu's elder brother Yoni, who was killed during the mission.
A champion of crackdowns on the Palestinian revolt that escalated into suicide-bombing campaigns in 2002, Mofaz sometimes seemed more hawkish than then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, himself a former general and defence chief. A TV crew captured Mofaz urging Sharon to "get rid of" Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader who had been besieged by Israeli tanks.
Mofaz also backed Sharon's unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005, but the prime minister's defection from Likud to form Kadima later that year caught him unprepared. After first pledging to hold his ground in Likud, Mofaz then bolted to join Sharon and his successor as Kadima prime minister, Ehud Olmert.
Though Olmert would play down speculation about an Israeli strike on Iran as "megalomania", Mofaz said in a newspaper interview in 2008 that war looked "unavoidable" given progress in its nuclear plans. Oil markets were jolted.
Mofaz has been more circumspect while in the opposition, saying Israel should not hasten to break ranks with war-wary world powers which want to curb Tehran's disputed uranium enrichment through sanctions and negotiations.
Mofaz proposed a peace plan in 2009 that called for the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders followed by negotiations on their permanent demarcation.
On Tuesday, he presented it again to Netanyahu, under whose government peace talks have stalled in a dispute over construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
(Writing by Maayan Lubell; editing by Dan Williams and Philippa Fletcher)
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