The rise and fall of Kadima

Kadima’s decline has created a huge vacuum in the political center.

August 8, 2012 11:02
Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz

Binyamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

When Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz joined the government in May, he outlined four major goals: passing a new law to stop wholesale draft-dodging by the Haredi ultra-Orthodox sector, changing the electoral system, pushing through a social justice-minded budget and restarting a genuine peace process with the Palestinians.

But there was also an unstated fifth goal: Kadima joining the Likud in a political merger that would create an unbeatable center-right alliance. If it came off, it would save Mofaz’s ailing party from crushing defeat at the polls and put its centrist ideology squarely on the national agenda. In short, it would be co-opting the Likud’s popularity to promote Kadima’s popular political goals.

In Kadima circles, the merger was codenamed the “big thing,” because of its huge implications for both parties and for Israeli politics. It would mean a reversal of the “big bang” of November 2005, when Ariel Sharon broke away from Likud to form Kadima – but with Kadima’s key ideas now incorporated by both parties.

On the face of it, this could have been the making of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as a national leader. He would have had the political backing to tackle a slew of major foreign policy and domestic issues that had been dealt with in piecemeal fashion or circumvented for years.

But he was never on board. He saw Kadima’s entry into the coalition primarily as a means of averting early elections and getting a problematic budget passed by the end of the year. Rather than merge, he hoped to use Kadima’s presence in government to render it irrelevant, and encroach as much as possible on its diminishing political space.

Rather than go for a game-changing secular agenda and sweeping peace moves, he preferred to stick to his crippling political alliance with the ultra-Orthodox and the far right. Kadima’s merger overtures were spurned, and its initiative to have significantly more Haredim serve in the army and join the work force torpedoed.

In mid-July, after just 70 days, the grand Likud-Kadima-led coalition, with 94 of the 120 Knesset members, broke up with nothing to show for its pains. Mofaz’s decision to pull out over Netanyahu’s foot-dragging on Haredi service hurt them both. Netanyahu’s approval rating, further dented by new austerity measures, plummeted from 46 percent in May to 31 percent in late July. Mofaz found his post-coalition party in tatters.

Polls showed a slide from 28 seats in the current Knesset to a projected four to seven in the next. Worse: Kadima seemed to be imploding, with Knesset members looking to defect in all directions.

Indeed, a multiple split in Kadima seems only a matter of time. There are real questions over whether it will be able to survive. And, importantly for Israel, questions over its social and political goals if it doesn’t.

With or without Kadima, will the Israeli center be able to reinvent itself in a way that takes up the slack and poses a serious challenge to Netanyahu and the right? Will it be able to take advantage of Netanyahu’s falling numbers? Or, with Kadima’s decline, will the right grow even more dominant than it is today? Just weeks ago, both Netanyahu and Mofaz seemed firmly in the saddle. The grand coalition was functioning smoothly, and a committee under Kadima’s Yohanan Plesner was making giant strides toward a new law for Haredi army service. Conditions for a political alliance seemed ideal. And, in late June, Mofaz gave Tzachi Hanegbi, a former Kadima justice minister, the go-ahead to put the merger/alliance scenario to Netanyahu.

Hanegbi, who had grown close to the prime minister while serving as chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, had long been advocating a Kadima-Likud pact, arguing that it would save Kadima from oblivion and serve the national interest by moving Likud to the center.

Netanyahu, how ever, was not interested. A few days later he dispersed the Plesner Committee, sparking the crisis over the Haredi draft that would lead Mofaz to bolt the coalition.

Mofaz says he would have been ready to go for a merger only after Netanyahu had proved his seriousness on all Kadima’s main concerns, especially the Haredi draft and peacemaking with the Palestinians. Kadima insiders spoke about a “defining moment” showing that Netanyahu really intended to tackle the big issues.

However, under pressure from the Haredim and right-wingers in his own party, the prime minister didn’t even make it to the first hurdle.

Immediately after the break up of the coalition, Hanegbi moved to plan B: Joining the Likud with as many Kadima defectors as he could muster, and leaving the party he said had run its course to bleed. By law, to make the cross-over count in parliament, he needed at least seven members of Kadima’s Knesset faction. He managed to persuade only five. That led to plan C, defection in stages: Seven Kadima Knesset members would break away to set up an independent faction, from which five would split to Likud and two to Labor.

Netanyahu and Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich went along, both hoping to make immediate gains and to accelerate the demise of a major electoral rival. This plan, however, also failed. Haim Ramon, who left Kadima to set up a new party for former leader Tzipi Livni, intervened, persuading the potential left-leaning defectors not to make a move that would strengthen Netanyahu, and to wait until he had established his new political framework. The end result was Hanegbi joining Likud on his own, without defectors for the time being, and with all the major players – Likud, Labor, Ramon and Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid – circling Kadima, anticipating the coming implosion, and waiting to pick up the pieces.

One of the right-wing Kadima Knesset Members involved in Hanegbi’s maneuvers and still itching to leave is Otniel Schneller, a settler Sharon brought into the party after the August 2005 Gaza disengagement to help facilitate a similar withdrawal from the West Bank. Schneller maintains that he joined the party as a bridge between left and right, secular and religious, but that under Livni Kadima became too left-wing and anti-Haredi, leaving no room for people like him. Kadima, he says, lost most of its original electorate to the Likud and instead picked up votes from Labor, Shinui and Meretz, parties with which he has nothing in common.

This disconnect between the party’s left-tending constituency and some of its more right-wing representatives is one of the reasons for its current woes, he insists.

“Kadima,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, “is like a terminally ill patient. To survive, it needs to shed the diseased parts and keep only the healthy hard core that believes in what the party now stands for.” In other words, allow malcontents like himself to leave and then rebuild on a smaller, more homogeneous basis. “Unless Mofaz finds a way to end the infighting in the party, he is finished as a national leader,” Schneller warns.

Others in Kadima insist that the deep hole Mofaz and his party find themselves in is more a case of skewed public perceptions than any mistakes they may have made.

Yisr ael Hasso n, one of Mofaz’s stalwart supporters, maintains that the party is still saying and doing all the right things and still has the best answers to the nation’s problems. “It was Netanyahu, not Kadima, who messed things up,” he tells The Report. “How could he just throw away the energy of 94 coalition members without doing anything on the big issues when everybody knows we’ll be facing huge crises in just a year or two?” Hasson also has harsh words for senior people in Kadima who refused to accept Mofaz as leader. “Ever since Mofaz won the leadership fair and square, people started shooting at him and us from all directions.

First it was the Ramon-Tzipi group, and then Tzachi Hanegbi,” he fumes. “What Tzachi did was totally reprehensible. It was for his sake that Kadima gave up on being an effective opposition, when we took the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for him rather than the Finance Committee, which could have been a focal point for serious opposition.”

Kadima, he says, also backed Hanegbi through a long legal battle in which he was acquitted of cronyism but convicted of perjury. “We never abandoned him at any stage,” Hasson insists. “And although he said Livni made a mistake in refusing to join Netanyahu’s government, he didn’t quit the party over that. But when Mofaz pulled out of the coalition for very good reasons, he did. And he didn’t only leave the party. He tried to dismantle it.”

In Hasson’s view, the fragmented center should unite rather than continue what he sees as its petty squabbles. “The differences between us are marginal in the context of the threats facing the country. We need to join forces if we want to save the project called Israel, one of the greatest achievements in Jewish history,” he declares.

In its heyday, Kadima’s historic role was to bring the moderate right over to the left-wing solution of the Palestinian issue: two states for two peoples. Sharon planned to do it unilaterally, following the August 2005 disengagement from Gaza with a pullback from the West Bank, euphemistically called “convergence.”

Following severe rocketing from Gaza and Lebanon, his successor Ehud Olmert dropped the unilateral plans and tried to negotiate a peace and security deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. His failure to pull it off marks the beginning of Kadima’s decline. Likud arguments that this showed the Palestinians weren’t really interested in peace resonated with the Israeli voting public. With Netanyahu’s election in February 2009, Kadima’s raison d’etre, an occupation-ending pullback from Palestinian territory, began to lose its luster.

In opposition, Kadima’s new leader, Tzipi Livni, was unable to generate a convincing alternative foreign policy or domestic agenda. Kadima heavyweights grew restless, some openly critical of her refusal to join Netanyahu’s government. Her public standing plummeted last summer when she was slow in picking up on the political implications of the mass social protest movement.

Despite growing rumblings over her leadership, she did very little to cultivate a solid home base within the party. When the showdown against Mofaz finally came in the March party primary election, she lost by a landslide (37.23 percent to 61.7 percent).

Mofaz’s victory, though, may have sounded the death knell for Kadima. Whatever her faults as leader, Livni symbolized in her person what Kadima was all about: integrity, clean politics, middle class interests and peacemaking. Mofaz, a former Likud hawk who hesitated about joining Sharon’s Kadima, failed to convince as leader of the peace camp, and was widely perceived to have joined Netanyahu’s coalition out of political self-preservation.

The fact that he had earlier called Netanyahu a liar and vowed never to join him did not help his credibility. Nor did his entering the government only to leave it 70 days later. This seemed to vindicate Livni’s much criticized refusal to work with Netanyahu, and said little for Mofaz’s political judgment.

Struggling under Livni, Kadima fell from 28 seats in parliament to 10 in its very worst showing in the polls. Under Mofaz it dropped to single figures.

Kadima’s decline has created a huge vacuum in the political center where the next election will be won or lost. So far Yachimovich has been the chief beneficiary, with Labor moving up from eight seats in the current Knesset to around 20 in the polls.

Livni is also waiting in the wings. They could benefit from Mofaz’s greatest achievement: hurting Netanyahu by putting key issues on the national agenda that he chose to ignore.

What seemed to be a one horse-race only a few months ago is now shaping up as a three-way tussle for prime minister: Netanyahu, Yachimovich and Livni. Ironically Mofaz and Kadima, who will not be in contention, may have done more than most to create conditions for a credible national leadership bid from the center left.

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