Kadima’s Big Bang

A new center.

This article described the creation of the Kadima party in late 2005 and Kadima’s platform in the election of 2006.

In December 2003, Ariel Sharon, war hero, champion of the settlement movement and darling of the Israeli right, announced the Disengagement Plan, a proposal to unilaterally withdraw from parts of the West Bank and Gaza, thereby solving Israel’s demographic problems by ending its control over millions of Palestinians, and possibly kick-starting the peace process. 

Sharon’s announcement precipitated months of frenetic action by the settlers and their allies, all in an effort to prevent the dismantling of settlements and, ultimately, to preserve Jewish control over the entire Land of Israel. In the course of the public campaign, a majority of Sharon’s own party voted against the plan in an internal Likud referendum. A political war of attrition waged against Sharon in the Knesset by right-wing Likud MKs failed to prevent the adoption of the Disengagement Plan as government policy and then as law.

In August 2005, the plan was carried out: 25 Israeli settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank were evacuated and bulldozed.

The Creation of Kadima

Despite his political victory, Sharon understood that the lines of Israeli politics had been redrawn. The fight over the Disengagement plan had united him with his erstwhile opponents in the Labor party and on the Left, and pitted him against rightwing colleagues from his own party. In an effort to avoid further conflicts within the Likud, in November 2005, Sharon announced the creation of a new party–Kadima. Over the next few weeks, leading figures from Likud, Labor, and smaller parties flocked to the new movement, some out of a sense of identification with Sharon’s path, others in response to Kadima’s impressive polling data.

kadimaPolitical pundits attributed Kadima’s initial appeal to the popularity of its leading figure–Sharon. But in December 2005 and January 2006, Sharon suffered a series of strokes, leaving him incapacitated. Leadership of the party passed to then Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Despite the change in leadership and in the face of conventional political wisdom, Kadima maintained its popularity, registering at around 40 Knesset seats (33%) in the polls for most of the run-up to the 2006 election.

During the 1990s, many commentators believed that the peace process would lead to a seismic shift on the map of Israeli politics. The prevailing Labor-Likud rivalry–driven by the debate over the Territories–would lose its centrality, its place being taken by newer parties focused on more relevant social, economic, and religious issues. The creation of Kadima was heralded as the start of this “Big Bang.”

The Big Bang – Background

Until 1967, Israeli politics was reminiscent of the party line up in many European countries: a socialist Left (Labor) facing a capitalist-nationalist Right (Herut, the predecessor of today’s Likud). Israel’s conquest of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six Day War focused Israeli political discourse on one divisive issue: the future of the Territories. The Left’s policy of negotiation and territorial compromise–“Land for Peace” –was rejected by the Likud and the religious Right who believed in ongoing Jewish control of the undivided Land of Israel.

The tension between Left and Right over the future of the Territories intensified until it was violently ruptured in a two-stage development. The outbreak of the first intifada (Palestinian uprising) in 1987 raised doubts about the possibility of continued Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinians, it emerged, were simply unprepared to accept the Israeli occupation. The political fallout came in the 1992 elections: Labor swept back to power and in 1993 Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with the PLO. But the peace process did not end the conflict. Just as the first intifada disrupted the fantasies of the Right, the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000–and its escalation into a campaign of murderous suicide bombings–undermined the Left-wing assumption that compromise would bring peace.

Blast Off

Since Oslo, pundits have been predicting a realignment of the political system. Once the question of the Territories released its choke-hold on political discourse, they reasoned, other vital issues would be able to retake their place in the national debate: poverty, sex-discrimination, multiculturalism, religion and state, the environment, education, and crime. And if the political debate was reshaped, maybe new parties with innovative, relevant ideologies would also emerge. In the 1990s, this certainly seemed to be the case, as evidenced by the dramatic upsurge of previously marginal parties: Shinui (middle class, secular, free-market), Shas (Sephardi/Middle Eastern, ultra-orthodox Jews), Israel B’aliyah (former Soviet immigrants).

Yet at the same time, Israelis’ search for personal security since 2000 strengthened the Likud. The Likud’s election broadcasts in 2003 featured one simple message from its leader, Ariel Sharon: “If you vote Likud–you’re voting for me. When you vote for me–you’re voting Likud.” The subtext was clear: in the absence of a solution or any clear policies for putting an end to the intifada, vote for someone you can trust to protect you. The Israeli public responded enthusiastically, giving Sharon 40 seats in the Knesset. And Sharon optioned this political capital by carrying out the Disengagement Plan.

A New Center

By 2006, Israeli politics evidenced two parallel tendencies: the shift of ideological debate away from issues of peace and security and towards social, economic, and religious issues, and the emergence of a non-ideological center committed to finding pragmatic solutions to the conflict with the Palestinians.

To what extent did the creation of Kadima reflect this dynamic?

Kadima’s official platform leading up to the 2006 election combined traditional rightwing rhetoric–the Jewish people’s right to the undivided Land of Israel–with pragmatic policies on peace and security: a negotiated settlement and the creation of a Palestinian state. Yet this leftist tendency was matched by a unilateralist and expansionist agenda more reminiscent of traditional Likud attitudes. Then party leader Ehud Olmert stated that if negotiations did not progress, Israel would unilaterally withdraw to permanent borders by 2010. Isolated settlements and outposts would be dismantled, but Israel would annex the large settlement blocs in Ariel, Gush Etzion, and around Jerusalem–as well as a security zone in the Jordan valley.

On social and economic issues the Kadima platform was similarly equivocal. It opened by describing dangerous social divisions in Israeli society, highlighting the phenomenon of growing poverty and inequality and the erosion of living standards relative to western countries. Alongside the poor, the platform promised to defend the middle class, the elderly, residents of outlying areas, women, and minorities. Ehud Olmert declared that Kadima’s policies would reflect the economics of compassion (a stand that has been attacked by the Left who argue that the poor deserve justice, not philanthropy). Yet the platform went on to state that the free market–albeit not a “jungle” or free-for-all–is the best means for overcoming these problems. This means cutting public spending, accelerating privatization, maintaining low-inflation, fighting unemployment by creating incentives to work, and streamlining the benefits system. Here, social-democratic language was combined with neo-liberal economics.

The platform also contained a long section on educational policy, emphasizing that reforms must be carried out through partnership and consensus (a swipe at the Likud whose recent attempts to overhaul the educational system were shelved after a long battle with the teachers’ unions). On issues of religion and state, Kadima implicitly endorses the status quo and rules out sweeping reforms, while encouraging the Chief Rabbinate to take a more flexible stand on conversion and promising a solution to people who are prevented from marrying under current legal arrangements.

Big Bang or Damp Squib?

In certain respects, then, the emergence of Kadima seemed to reflect the ideological transformation of Israeli politics. Instead of a principled position on the classic debate over the Territories, Kadima advanced a pragmatic solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, based on historic leftist principles but clothed in rightwing sentiment and rhetoric.

The fact that the bulk of Kadima’s platform was taken up not with military and diplomatic questions but with social, economic and educational issues was also indicative of this shift. Yet rather than engaging honestly in debate over Israel’s future in these areas, Kadima sought to smooth over controversy and offer up a menu which would be to everyone’s taste. Hence the synthesis of rightwing economics with social concern, of commitment to the religious establishment with consideration for those who suffer at its hands.

Is this kind of political centrism–seeking to accommodate the views of the majority through a combination of pragmatism and principles, substance and spin–desirable? From one perspective, Kadima’s centrist, consensual politics reflected the genuine concerns of an increasingly non-ideological society. But can democracy retain its vitality without a genuine clash between clear philosophical alternatives?

In the absence of this kind of debate, the Big Bang of Israeli politics might turn out to be a damp squib–at least on the ideological level. And in terms of the party system, Kadima’s leaders might do well to remember the fate of the Third Way, Tzomet, and the Center Party–previous incarnations of political centrism, all of which have vanished without a trace. Will Kadima successfully ignite a Big Bang? The question will likely take several years to answer, but there’s reason to predict cautiously. In the elections, on March 28, 2006, Kadima won 29 seats in the Knesset, the most of any party, but far fewer than originally forecasted, and Kadima’s Ehud Olmert became Prime Minister.

In 2008, Ehud Olmert stepped down as party leader of Kadima, and Tzipi Livni replaced him. Livni was unable to form a coalition, and early elections were called for February 2009. Kadima again won the most seats of any party, this time 28 seats rather than 29, only one more seat than Likud. Likud, however, was asked to form the government, probably because it was more likely to be able to form a coalition government, and Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister. In the eighteenth Knesset, Kadima is the leader of the opposition in the Knesset.

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