PARTY TIME: Kadima - building a party from the ground up

Two months after winning the elections, no one really knows what kind of a party Kadima is.

party time 88 (photo credit: )
party time 88
(photo credit: )
First in a series Kadima's gala victory party was supposed to be held on Thursday night. The banquet halls at Jerusalem's Ramada Renaissance Hotel had been reserved and paid for, including refreshments for 800 guests and an appearance by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Invitations had gone out a week ago to all the party's senior members, various celebrities and members of the media who rushed to report on the unusually expensive affair. Kadima's spokesman strenuously denied any kind of party was in the works, but the organizer and the hotel's manager insisted that it was still on. The party ended on Wednesday when Jerusalem police arrested a 48-year-old man for impersonating an adviser to Olmert. The party that never was might be no more than a bizarre anecdote, but it illustrates a valid point. Half a year after the party's founding and two months after the elections, no one really knows what kind of a party Kadima is. Who are its members? Where is it going? "Our rivals are telling the truth when they accuse us of being a plastic party," a Kadima staffer said this week. "That's still what we are. We haven't gotten down yet to building the party." There are extenuating circumstances. Kadima has been rather busy. It started out as an election platform, had to deal with the disappearance of its founder only six weeks after inception, fought a bitter campaign under the leadership of an unpopular politician, disappointed expectations at the ballot box and formed an unsteady coalition. Even now the party's hierarchy is finding it hard to finally get down to organizing a real political party. Olmert and his senior ministers are busy with his impending visit to Washington, Knesset leaders are already struggling to keep the coalition together at every vote and the fragile unity is already unraveling. The lack of a Kadima ethos was evident in the way that Uriel Reichman rushed to resign last month when the promised appointment as education minister didn't materialize. There was no party tradition or ideology to which to remain faithful. Nor was MK Marina Solodkin tied by any loyalty after she didn't receive a cabinet post. She walked out of the coalition confirmation vote two weeks ago and since then has seemed to be intent on burning her bridges with the new party. To keep the Kadima project afloat, the party's central activists have to inject some real life into the virtual organism that might have just won them the election but definitely won't bring them to the end of the Knesset term without some substance. After the election, the campaign's local headquarters were disbanded. There are only a handful of employees on the payroll, and there is no definite organization to marshal the 15,000 people who have already joined the party. Kadima is continuing its recruitment drive, but with a lot less publicity than before the election. The ambitious talk of a million party members has long ago been forgotten. "The recruitment is very important," said MK Yoel Hasson, the Kadima whip and one of the more active members in the building of the party organization. "The party member will be the base of everything that happens." Kadima will not have a two- or three-tier system of membership, as the party is anxious to get far away from the negative image of the Likud central committee. There will be a council, which will include the MKs and local authority heads, but according to the Kadima constitution only the rank-and-file members will be able to vote for the party's candidates. The first test of this system will be the local elections in two years. The party constitution stipulates that Kadima members in each town will vote for their candidates for mayor and council members. Some party leaders are worried that unwanted candidates, who might damage Kadima's image, will make sure their people join Kadima to ensure their candidacy. The party is hoping to prevent that by instituting a time limit for joining in the hope that only committed citizens will come. Members who sign up after September will have to wait another two years before they can vote or be candidates. In addition, the party will be running checks to ensure that no one was coerced or paid to become a member. There are reports of suspected criminal elements trying to use Kadima as a way of getting close to power. Dozens of requests by Russian-born billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak to meet Olmert and other ministers to join Kadima have been refused over the last few months, ever since police began investigating money-laundering charges against him. But even the existing leadership is uncertain of how to proceed. One of the main arguments now is on whether to set up party branches. Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit is the main proponent of branches, stressing the contact with the grass roots. Most other senior members believe that keeping contact via Web site, newsletter and occasional events would be more effective. Some have even proposed setting up a consumers club. Meanwhile, not all the new MKs are actively engaged in building networks of supporters within the party. Some are political neophytes without any experience in recruiting members and building a base of support. Others are already busy, including Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter. The ex-Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief is turning out to be a political animal. He has already taken steps to ensure that the 84 local organizers around the country, whom he was in charge of as head of the Election Day headquarters, remain loyal to him in the future contests within the party. One of the main question marks is what the balance of power between different groups within the party will be and whether it will allow Kadima to stay intact for the next election. Kadima MKs shy away from the term "camps," which is too reminiscent of the bad old Likud days, but there are already a number of distinct groupings. The most senior is made up of the Olmert loyalists, consisting of ministers Ze'ev Boim, Roni Bar-On and Avraham Hirchson and MK Shlomo Breznitz. Another central group is made up of the former Likudniks with no special allegiance to Olmert - ministers Tzipi Livni, Sheetrit, Shaul Mofaz and Gideon Ezra and MKs Tzahi Hanegbi and Ruhama Avraham. These are the two main power groups, but there other potential camps. Religious party members are eager to sign up as many members of their community as possible to improve their chances in the future primaries, as are the Russian MKs. There is also another interesting group, consisting of young advisers and officials who worked with Ariel Sharon and are determined to perpetuate his legacy within the party. Hasson is one of them, and Yohanan Plessner, who is expected to be appointed Kadima's director-general, is another out to prove that the diverse and currently dysfunctional group can actually bring to life the party that Sharon founded.