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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When asked this week whether he thought Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new centrist party could last, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who is not religious, said the answer could be found in the reading of the Temple service in the Yom Kippur prayers.
"Concerning the people of the Sharon, [the High Priest] would say: May it be Your will, Lord our God and the God of our forefathers, that their homes not become their graves," the dramatic passage reads.
The priest said the prayer because at the time of the Temple, the Sharon region was frequently flooded and the homes in the area would often collapse with their inhabitants trapped inside. But the comparison to the current state of Israeli politics could not be more clear.
Fifteen MKs took a gamble this week and joined Sharon on an adventure that could lead to the advent of a three-party system in Israel. Or the "people of Sharon" could find that their new political home has become their graveyard.
Labor MK Colette Avital, who through her work in the Socialist International has become an expert in international politics, said she could not think of a single country in the world that has three major political parties. She said that a country's third largest party usually lags way behind the first two, like the Liberal Democrats in England.
The front-running candidate to succeed Sharon at the head of the Likud, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, said that there is no such thing as a political center in Israel or anywhere else in the world.
Netanyahu's campaign strategy will be to paint Sharon's party as leftist. Even before Labor MK Haim Ramon joined the party on Wednesday, Netanyahu went to every major television and radio station in the country to deliver the message that "a vote for Sharon is a vote for the Left."
Rivlin put Sharon's party in perspective when he said, "You can't compromise between right and wrong, so if people think as I do that Right is right and Left is wrong, then compromising between Left and Right is just not right."
The Knesset speaker asserted the reason Sharon's party cannot last was that it was "ad hoc, personal, and has no ideology."
He said that most of the people who joined the party did so because they had no political future elsewhere.
Other critics have pointed out that history is not on the side of the Sharonist MKs, who took into account when they joined the party that many centrist parties have come and gone. The most recent centrist lists in the political dustbin include the Center Party, Democratic Movement for Change and the Third Way, none of which ended up receiving enough mandates to match the hype they generated when they were formed.
But political strategist Lior Chorev, who was the Sharon adviser most in favor of leaving the Likud, responded to critics by saying that if the new party was built the right way, it could find a permanent spot on the Israeli political map. To that end, a number of decisions were made this week to try to ensure that the party would not become another one-term wonder.
First of all, the name Kadima, which means forward in Hebrew, was chosen instead of the National Responsibility Party and other options. The name is intended to send a positive message that the party is looking forward to the future of the party and the state.
Sharon's advisers also decided that from its second term onward, Kadima would become Israel's first party to elect its MKs in national primaries in which every Israeli can vote. Sharon will devise the Knesset list this time around, but whether or not he intends to last for more than one more term, there will be a nationwide election for the party's head four years from now.
"The disengagement plan redefined Right, Left and Center in Israel and created a new consensus," Chorev says. "Kadima wasn't formed for personal reasons but to reflect the centrist and well-thought-out path that the prime minister represents. It's a party that will reject the extremes of Amir Peretz on the Left and Netanyahu on the Right, and represent people who want a leader who will take Israel's future in his hands and decide where its borders are going to be."
DURING THE press conference in which he announced the party's formation, Sharon was purposely vague on the border issue, because he does not want to turn off potential voters from the Right or Left or to upset the international community. Nor does he want to make the kind of commitments he made in the past when he said that Netzarim - the most isolated settlement in the Gaza Strip - would share the same fate as Tel Aviv.
Sharon said that his party's platform would be the international-brokered roadmap diplomatic plan and that there would not be another disengagement. He spoke of settlement blocs that would remain part of Israel forever and of security zones - without naming them - and said, as he has in the past, that "in the last stage of the roadmap, you can assume that some of the settlements won't be able to remain there."
He said that he intended to "lay the foundation for a peace agreement in which the country's permanent borders would be determined." But when asked whether he intended to draw Israel's border in his next term, he said that "teaching the Arab world to live in peace with Israel was an educational process that could take a long time."
Chorev says that Sharon's advisers intend to learn from the lessons of the centrist parties that failed by building a strong foundation. So far, the party has drafted 14 Likud MKs, Ramon from Labor, former Shas MK David Tal and, apparently, former Shin-Bet chief Avi Dichter. Negotiations are expected next week with MKs from Labor and Shinui, and an array of respected public figures ranging from Interdisciplinary Center president and Shinui founder Uriel Reichman to ZAKA head Yehuda Meshi-Zahav.
Chorev notes that a new party has never been formed by an incumbent prime minister and that Sharon is on a different level from that of the prime ministerial candidates who formed the Center Party, Yitzhak Mordechai, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Dan Meridor and Roni Milo.
"This party has people like Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Meir Sheetrit, who have been around a long time and have been respected for years," Chorev says. "It's not a party of nobodies. You have a sitting prime minister with 62 years of service behind him. People know who he is and what his principles are. The Center Party was made up of wannabes. Sharon already is."
Whether or not Sharon's party will last, one thing is clear: Having three major parties to follow will make this election interesting. The shots that have already been fired between Sharon and Netanyahu and between Peretz and Ramon are a sign that the election will be a political battle royale.
So far, the polls have predicted that Sharon's party will win the March 28 election, but four months is an eternity in Israeli politics and it is too soon to tell whether Kadima and the Sharon people will move forward - or end up in the political graveyard.