Kadima in the Wings

By Elliot Jager
Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Whether or not Benjamin Netanyahu accedes to American pressure for a renewal of the construction freeze in West Bank settlements, the prospect has created roiling dissension within the prime minister's Likud party and raised the possibility of a split—or, to be more accurate, another split.

The previous Likud schism occurred in November 2005 when Likud members rejected Ariel Sharon's plan for a unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza and Sharon founded the Kadima party as a political workaround. After Sharon became incapacitated by a stroke, Kadima under Ehud Olmert won its 2006 election bid by campaigning for a second unilateral separation, this time from the Palestinians in the West Bank.

Subsequent aggression from both Gaza and Lebanon—where, in 2000, Israel had unilaterally withdrawn from its security zone—undermined the attraction of unilateralism to the point where the policy was silently discarded. And yet, despite having lost not only its charismatic founder in Sharon but also its philosophical underpinning, Kadima succeeded in consolidating itself as a viable "third-way" alignment of pragmatists. As such, it has continued to attract political candidates away from Likud, Labor, and beyond; its current Knesset lineup includes a West Bank settler and a Peace Now proponent.   

The party's reputation for pragmatism—in the New York Times, it has been variously described as "center-Right" and "center-Left"—no doubt accounts for its foreign appeal as well. It is widely understood that President Barack Obama would have preferred Israel's 2009 elections to have yielded a Kadima-led government, with Tzipi Livni, formerly of Likud, at the helm. Washington is reportedly now pressing Netanyahu to jettison his right-wing coalition partners (Yisrael Beitenu and Habayit Hayehudi) and replace them with Kadima.  Presumably, the purpose is to make Israel's negotiating stance more malleable—though the previous Kadima government, led by Olmert and Livni, failed conspicuously to close a deal with Mahmoud Abbas, who pronounced its unprecedented territorial concessions to be still insufficient.

Other contradictions may be noted. For one thing, Kadima is hardly a bastion of good-government reformists. Although Livni's personal integrity is not at issue, Sharon was investigated for wrongdoing on multiple occasions; Olmert is now on trial for corruption; policy chairman Haim Ramon was convicted of indecent behavior; Avraham Hirchson, a finance minister, went to prison for corruption; and in the latest incident, Tzahi Hanegbi, a party powerbroker, was forced to quit the Knesset on morals charges.

Nor is that the end of the party's leadership problems. Livni, though photogenic, has not emerged as a strong presence in her role of opposition leader, furthering a long-established reputation for indecisiveness. Last year, even though Kadima won one more Knesset seat than Likud, she failed to form a government. Livni is now being challenged by Shaul Mofaz, a former top general, whom she barely defeated for the party leadership in 2008.

In spite of all this, and in spite of its failure to articulate a coherent platform to replace unilateralism, Kadima continues to run neck and neck with Likud in public-opinion surveys. Unlike other third-way Israeli parties that have come and gone, it has demonstrated remarkable staying power. Partly, no doubt, this is because its arrival on the scene coincided with the evolution of a post-intifada domestic consensus that ending the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs was a vital national interest even if it resulted in the establishment of a "Palestine" alongside Israel. Partly it is also because its leaders are no political novices.

Mostly, however, Kadima's success reflects the diminished expectations Israelis have of their elected officials. Ideological consistency, adherence to solemn campaign pledges, upstanding ethical behavior, even leadership excellence is no longer paramount. What seems to matter most is what Kadima purports to offer: "pragmatism," whatever that may mean to any particular bloc of disgruntled voters at any particular time.

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