Kadima after Sharon

The new party can yet make history by reflecting a 21st-century political realignment of the Israeli body politic.

As these words are being written, Ariel Sharon lies in a coma in the intensive care unit of Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem. The prognosis isn't known, yet it's obvious he won't be returning to the Prime Minister's Office. His career is finished. Still, the party he founded at the end of November remains not only politically viable but essential to Israel's political well-being. Kadima already has an iconic founder, a working party platform, an organizational director (Avigdor Yitzhaki), a plethora of talented politicians and, most importantly, an overarching mission that goes beyond Sharon the man. That mission is to give Israelis a choice between Amir Peretz and Binyamin Netanyahu. Peretz and those to his left remain convinced that there is a Palestinian negotiating partner, and continue to embrace the ghost of Oslo. Netanyahu, and those to his right, oppose unilateralism and claim to want "a better deal" from the Palestinians. Some desire no deal at all. They are comfortable with the status quo. That is why Kadima's centrist alternative is no less imperative today than it was when Sharon first broke away from the Likud. Kadima's pragmatism was articulated by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni on November 29, when she summarized the new party's political platform: "The Jewish people have a national and historic right to the Land of Israel; but to maintain a Jewish majority in a Jewish democratic state we have to concede parts of the Land of Israel...." Thus while Kadima understands the inevitability of a Palestinian Arab state, it certainly does not relish the prospect. It accepts the internationally-brokered road map diplomatic plan - with the explicit proviso that the Palestinians first fulfill their obligations: dismantling the terrorist groups and ending violence and incitement. Kadima calls for maintaining the major settlement blocs, and supports an undivided Jerusalem (a fairly meaningless mantra, I admit). I'm not suggesting that Kadima's platform could not be improved. For instance, a truly centrist party would favor a civil marriage option as well as support for non-Orthodox conversions. BUT I'M not deluding myself. Kadima could easily fizzle out, just like Yigal Yadin's Democratic Movement for Change, Yitzhak Mordechai's Center Party, and now Tommy Lapid's Shinui. For that not to happen, Ehud Olmert, Meir Sheetrit, Tzipi Livni and Avi Dichter, in consultation with other Kadima politicians, will have to make some tough decisions, quickly. Kadima needs not only to replace Sharon but also to display the esprit de corps and unity so abysmally lacking in Likud and Labor. My own preference is for the 60-year-old Olmert. And I say this despite the fact that as mayor of Jerusalem he neither had my garbage collected as often as I would have liked nor used municipal taxes efficiently. Olmert is the most seasoned and polished politician in Kadima's ranks, having been mayor of Israel's largest city (1993-2003), a Knesset member, a minister and, previously, a successful attorney. He has excellent English, already knows the key players in Washington, London, Brussels and Berlin, and has the added advantage of being Acting Prime Minister. He was out front on the need for unilateral disengagement even before the idea captured the support of most Israelis. He was the first to join Kadmia after Sharon established it. And he's cunning enough to follow in Sharon's tactical footsteps. He has an excellent political and familial pedigree in the Jabotinsky movement. He was a member of Betar. All this tells me he's capable of striking the right balance between ideological principle and realpolitik. Is Olmert a squeaky-clean politician? Let's not kid ourselves. But, like many Israelis, I'd rather have a shrewd, slightly shady character at the helm of the state than a knave or charlatan. PLATFORM OR no platform, the ethos of Kadima is clear to savvy Israelis. I refer you to the interview published on October 11, 2004 between Sharon's consigliere Dov Weissglass and Haaretz's Avi Shavit. Here is the lawyer encapsulating the thinking of his foremost client: "Because of his trenchant realism, Arik never believed in permanent settlements: He didn't believe in the one-fell-swoop approach. Sharon doesn't think that after a conflict of 104 years it's possible to come up with a piece of paper that will end the matter. "...Very quickly we discovered that we were up against a [Palestinian] stone wall, that when you get to the decision-making center, nothing happens." So what unilateralism does, Weissglass explained, is to "make it possible for Israel to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure. It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians." And so it has been. The months ahead will not be easy ones. There is the need to deal with the Iranian threat - while emphasizing that this is a problem for the West and not just for Israel. Construction of the security barrier must be accelerated. Ground must be broken on the E1 project to connect Jerusalem to Ma'aleh Adumin - an area where Sharon has dragged his heels. The next premier must devote himself to defining and solidifying the Israeli consensus, not just on security issues but on a range of domestic priorities to make this society a more equitable and cohesive one. Kadima can yet make history by reflecting a 21st-century political realignment of the Israeli body politic - one that gives expression to the country's pragmatic mainstream. But it can only do so if its luminaries are able to summon up the altruism to postpone gratification and put the nation first. jager@jpost.com