Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Kadima's struggle for survival

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By Amotz Asa-El  

Israeli PM Olmert is having trouble consolidating Sharon's realignment of Israeli politics

Kadima, the Israeli ruling party which only a year ago conjured vigour, vision and promise, is fighting for its life.

With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s approval rating sinking to two percent in some polls and an official panel’s impending verdict potentially damning him for last summer’s war, the party Olmert leads seems as perplexed as the Israelites were prior to the parting of the Red Sea. Though Kadima populates a quarter of the Knesset and leads a coalition that comprises two-thirds of the legislature, the party established by Ariel Sharon on the eve of his abrupt departure from the political scene is now seen as an endangered species.

Back in late 2005, when Sharon established it, Kadima benefited from his charisma, centrism and reformism. Having first turned the tide in Israel’s war on terror and then turned his back on his own Greater Israel conviction, Sharon conquered the political mainstream with a tacit promise to herald in a post-ideological era whereby Israel’s time-honoured territorial debate would finally cease to dominate its political discourse. A new domestic and diplomatic pragmatism seemed the wave of the future.

Having brought together ideological refugees from both the nationalist and the ‘land for peace’ schools of thought, and having enjoyed the political backwind generated by Sharon’s bloodless evacuation of the Gaza Strip, Kadima also promised reforms that appealed to the centrist electorate. For instance, it vowed to appoint as education minister one of Israel’s top academics, political scientist Uriel Reichman, who was also to lead an ambitious effort to overhaul the electoral system, an idea he had championed for decades.

Sharon succeeded in rallying behind such ideas not only a critical mass of his own original party, Likud, but also key members of its historic arch-nemesis, Labor, including its longtime leader Shimon Peres. This seemed like the political equivalent of his famous crossing of the Suez Canal as a soldier, a move that dramatically turned the tide of the 1973 war and fashioned Sharon as a general on the scales of MacArthur or Napoleon.

With Sharon’s stroke in January ‘06, all immediately understood that his successors would offer no such charisma or heroism. Many actually saw promise in this transition, arguing it was time for Israel’s leaders to be unassuming civilians who, rather than excel on the battlefield, spent their best years debating, legislating and executing policy. Olmert, it was argued, the first of Israel’s 12 prime ministers to have previously been a corporate lawyer, fit well in the rapidly globalising and increasingly affluent Israel.

Then, however, came a politician’s worst enemy - events - and challenged Olmert in ways few Israeli leaders ever were.

First came the conflict in Lebanon, which, according to polls, has left Israelis bitter about their leadership and management, and then came a slew of corruption scandals, including some that allegedly involve Olmert himself.

The number of setbacks Olmert sustained in this context is hard to count.

IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz resigned because of the war; the head of Israel Police, Inspector-General Moshe Karadi, resigned because of revelations concerning his conduct in a previous position; Olmert’s close ally and original Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, was convicted of sexual misconduct; Olmert’s Bureau Chief of 30 years, Shula Zaken, was arrested and released on bail for her alleged involvement in a tax-rigging scandal; the head of the Tax Authority, Jackie Matza - a personal appointment of Olmert’s when he was Finance Minister - was arrested and forced to resign in the wake of the same affair. Meanwhile, President Moshe Katsav, who is seen as a product of the same political machinery that produced Olmert’s alleged corruption, is expected to be indicted for sexual misconduct as well.

All this is besides the investigations involving Olmert personally, ranging from alleged favouritism as Finance Minister during the sale of the country’s second-largest bank, to serially producing patronage appointments as Minister of Trade and Industry.

 

Yet all these difficulties look marginal compared with the war’s impending fallout, and its investigation by the Winograd Commission.

The Commission, which is headed by 80-year-old retired justice Eliyahu Winograd, was appointed by the government as a half-hearted concession to public demand for the appointment of a judicial commission that would have been headed by the President of the Supreme Court. The Winograd Commission, whose other members include two retired generals, a senior law professor and a senior political scientist, is expected to issue an interim report late April and its final report during July. In March, the Commission surprisingly issued a press release in which it said its interim report will include “personal conclusions” concerning Olmert’s and Defence Minister Amir Peretz’s leadership during last summer’s war.

Just what the Commission meant remains to be seen, but the political system is already in a tizzy, in line with most pundits’ insistence that Olmert is living on political borrowed time.

For his part, Olmert remains determined to fight on and salvage his career.

In a speech to party activists two days after the Winograd announcement, he said his lot would have been far better had he opted for populism or adventurism. Olmert made it plain that as far as he is concerned he is not going anywhere, while his colleagues, in a series of speeches all delivered that evening alongside him, created the impression they were circling the wagons behind him.

The challenger: Foreign Minister and Kadima #2 Tzipi Livni

However, party members are aware Olmert trails Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu massively in polls and that Olmert’s number two, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is enormously popular, tainted by no scandal, and feels ready to succeed him and offer what she would present as a clean-politics alternative to Olmert’s leadership.

A 48-year-old lawyer and former Mossad agent who has only been a lawmaker for eight years, Livni is almost a political novice compared with the 61-year-old Olmert, who entered the Knesset when Nixon was still in the White House. Her performance as Sharon’s Justice Minister was universally admired, as was the role she played as mediator between Sharon and Netanyahu – whom she had served as director of the State Companies Authority back when he was Prime Minister last decade.

Livni’s ambitions first became apparent in a newspaper interview earlier this year in which she said she does not rule out seeking the premiership, and then when she tried to change Kadima’s Constitution so as to allow any newly registered member to vote in its primary elections (current regulations require that members belong to the party for two years prior to voting for its institutions). Such a reform would have helped Livni capitalise on her popularity with the general public, as reflected in polls. However, Olmert’s loyalists, and others who fear Livni’s popularity, managed to defeat the proposal which was tabled by her supporters while she was abroad.

 

Yet Kadima’s problems transcend the narrow personal realm. If Olmert is forced to step down by the Winograd Commission, chances are Kadima will be publicly held responsible no less than him. Moreover, the party in general, and Livni in particular, are identified no less than Olmert with a policy of unilateral withdrawals. This is a policy with which many Israelis have become disillusioned in the wake of the rocket attacks on northern and southern Israel that followed the pullbacks from Lebanon and Gaza.

Add to that Kadima’s failure to deliver the reformist drive its voters often expected - the Education Ministry, for instance, which Sharon promised to hand to the conservative reformer Reichman, was instead given to a militant liberal from Labor - and you get the common suspicion that the party with the great centrist gospel that won last year’s election decisively may actually be a passing phenomenon.

Of course, for an early election to take place the current Knesset must first fire itself, a measure it will be reluctant to take so soon after its election. Another legally available scenario is that the Knesset will elect one of its members to replace Olmert. The most likely candidate for that would be Netanyahu, but since his own faction has merely a tenth of the Knesset, he would need to lure away large numbers of defectors from Kadima and offer them goods he is no position to deliver, namely guaranteed seats in the next Knesset. This therefore seems far-fetched.

Still, even if it survives for another year or so, Kadima for now seems at a loss to restore the optimism that accompanied its emergence, let alone sustain the substantial following it won last year. For now, assessments both within the party and outside it are that even if Kadima lives to run during the next general election, it will very doubtfully be led by Olmert, and then can at best survive as a midsize, centrist faction, while Labor and Likud win back the young, middle class, post-ideological electorates they lost last year to Kadima.

Then again, even if Kadima shrinks sharply, or even vanishes altogether as other centrist Israeli parties have over the years after having initially risen meteorically, its ideological imprint may prove indelible. Through it, thousands of Israeli voters who had previously voted Likud or Labor effectively said they want neither land-for-peace utopias nor whole Land of Israel dogmas, and they want neither neo-socialist populism nor capitalist Darwinism. They sought middle roads of the sort that the latter-day Sharon promised, and his successors were expected to deliver, and will doubtless continue to do so.

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