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A year ago, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hosted his first pre-Rosh Hashana toast for Kadima activists at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, the event was marred by the heckling of Second Lebanon War reservists and bereaved parents who called him a murderer.
Although some 3,000 people attended the event, tables full of Russian-speakers bused in from Pardess Hanna admitted they had no idea where they were or what Kadima stood for. In what seemed like a mass walkout, a large crowd of immigrants noisily exited the hall during Olmert's speech, because their bus was leaving.
What a difference a year makes. When Olmert hosts this year's pre-Rosh Hashana toast at the Jerusalem International Convention Center's Teddy Hall on Thursday, the crowd will be full of Kadima activists from across the country who have become involved in grassroots efforts that prove the party's vitality, if not its staying power.
At a time when the Labor Party is selling off all of its branches and the Likud is reeling from a leadership race in which it struggled to bring its members to vote, Kadima has become the country's most active political party at the grassroots level. Thirty branches, called Kadima Houses, have opened over the past year and on an average weeknight, they are surprisingly busy with local political activity, volunteer work and cultural events.
WHEN FORMER prime minister Ariel Sharon formed Kadima, he was seen as a leader without a real party behind him. Now Kadima has become a real party that is thriving, despite the unpopularity of its leader. Even though the party was initially formed from the top, it has been built over the past year from the ground up.
MK Avigdor Yitzhaki, Kadima's founding director-general, believed the party did not need branches, so he closed the 90 campaign offices the party had leased during last year's election campaign and left only the empty headquarters in Petah Tikva, with its towering poster of Sharon on the side of the building.
"When I got here, there was nothing and I had to build everything anew," said director-general Yohanan Plesner, who took over for Yitzhaki when the latter was elected to the Knesset. "Yitzhaki wanted a shell party, so he went and fired everyone. There were mayors and activists who had joined us from other parties and were used to working, but there was a vacuum with nothing for them to do."
Plesner, who followed the Boston Red Sox when he was a graduate student at Harvard University, decided he had to run the party like a baseball team to make it a winner. That meant nurturing new fans and giving them a reason to cheer on Kadima.
"A party is not a product you can just advertise to win a share of the market," Plesner said. "It's a community like a sports team that requires traditions and fans who need to feel a sense of belonging. You need an agenda and to appeal to the general public but you also need a base of activists to work from."
To that end, Plessner formed branches, but decided to run them differently from the Likud and Labor. Instead of using them only for politics and as an office for whomever runs the branch, Kadima Houses will be utilized as a platform for activity on behalf of the people of the area and an address for the community to express its concerns.
For instance, Kadima activists in Arad are running a campaign to widen the road that leads into the city; the Haifa Kadima House is fighting against pollution in the Kishon River; and a group of lawyers does pro-bono work on behalf of the community out of the branch in Ramle.
Every house has 15 leaders who decide on their local agenda, one of whom is being trained as a spokesman by the party's communications director, Shmulik Dahan. When Kadima ministers and MKs come, the local leaders present their agenda, and don't just listen to the politicians. The local efforts have already translated into election victories in mayoral races in Givatayim and Mevaseret Zion and a strong push will be made ahead of the November 2008 local authority elections across the country.
The branches are also used for ideological meetings with leaders like Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, as well as people unaffiliated with the party like the former head of IDF Intelligence, Aharon Ze'evi (Farkash). Cultural events like Russian sing-alongs are also held there.
Kadima has also tried to build a community on its Hebrew Internet site, which is updated constantly and has a calendar of events taking place in party branches every day. The Web site hosts debates on issues and allows activists to send questions for ministers to answer.
To maximize the site's effectiveness, before it was launched, Kadima officials researched party Web sites around the world. Russian and English sites will be launched soon with a forum for party activists that mimics the successful Facebook site.
Many Kadima MKs who were skeptical about the party's future after last summer's war have gradually come to realize they now have constituencies of supporters in communities across the country whom they have to serve. For instance, the MKs were lobbied intensely by Kadima activists ahead of the presidential race won by Shimon Peres.
"The MKs saw that they no longer could ignore the party activists," Plesner said. "All summer, there have tons of events and the MKs and ministers have been coming."
Despite all this, Likud and Labor leaders are still working under the assumption that Kadima will self-destruct ahead of the next election and the country will return to having only two potential ruling parties.
And not everyone in Kadima is convinced either. As The Jerusalem Post reported last week, a group of MKs is working on an effort to break off from the party before the Winograd Report is released in order to pressure Olmert to resign.
Yitzhaki, who worked for the Likud for many years before founding Kadima, said that forming so many branches was a waste of money. He said that as long as Kadima doesn't change its leadership, the mandates would not come.
"As the man who built the party from nothing and with my decades of experience building parties, I think that branches are an unnecessary expense and there is no need for them," Yitzhaki said. "Even Labor finally realized this. But someone who has never led a party [like Plesner] isn't going to get that."
Plesner responded that Olmert appointed him specifically because he did not have experience in the Likud and Labor. He said that as long as a clean party structure is in place, Kadima will be able to survive its leadership primary ahead of the next general election.
"Olmert wanted someone untainted by the political wheeling and dealing of other parties, so he appointed me to find a way to run things differently," he said. "After a year, I think we have realized what this new approach looks like in the field. There aren't primaries yet, and they don't have to be bad for the party as long as people follow the rules."
THE CURRENT challenge for Kadima is a membership drive that ends on March 15. The five expected leadership candidates - Olmert, Livni, Shaul Mofaz, Meir Sheetrit and Dichter - are trying to register as many supporters as possible between now and then. The current membership is some 27,000, and party officials are hoping to double that. A meticulous oversight system is in place to avoid the problems that have plagued the recent Labor and Likud drives and leadership races.
Plesner knows that it will take time for Kadima to prove its staying power. But he said he is used to dealing with impatience after enduring the criticism he faced a year ago when the party emerged tainted from the war, which broke out before he had a chance to form its institutions.
"A year ago, I didn't even know whom to invite to events," Plesner admitted. "But now I know who the top activists are in every city and in every sector, immigrants included. We formed the party under fire from criticism and it took time. We did it against all odds, but we did it."