From big bang to bust?

In a post-war Israel, Kadima attempts to get past its egos and attain real political goals.

kadima upfront feat 1 29 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
kadima upfront feat 1 29
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski)
One year and many investigations later, Kadima has inherited the Likud's corrupt reputation. In a post-war Israel, the once-'savior' centrist party of strange bedfellows attempts to get past its egos and attain real political goals. For a party whose name means "forward" in Hebrew, Kadima spent most of its first year of existence going in reverse. It lost its founding father, Ariel Sharon, who provided inspiration to the party's followers and glue to keep all the egos of its leaders together, but now lies comatose at the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. The party faced the results of an election under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's leadership that failed to meet expectations. It endured difficult coalition talks that resulted in the appointment of Labor Chairman Amir Peretz as defense minister, a move that the prime minister now deeply regrets. And to top it all off, Olmert led the country through a war deemed not completely successful. And yet, surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be an election around the corner; no one has left Kadima and Olmert is still the party's unchallenged leader. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter all see themselves as future Kadima leaders. But none of them has openly challenged Olmert or started to give him serious headaches. The Kadima faction marked the party's unlikely survival at the start of its weekly meeting at the Knesset on Monday. There was no champagne but there was a defiant speech by Olmert, who promised "many more years of serving as the dominant party while our rivals get angry, criticize us and sting us." Olmert recalled how a year ago Tuesday, Sharon called a press conference to announce the party's formation and asked President Moshe Katsav to disperse the Knesset, initiating a political realignment that was called the "big bang." MKs said after Monday's meeting that they could not have possibly imagined then the setbacks that the party and the country would face. "Kadima has passed more tests in one year than ruling parties in other countries have faced in decades," Kadima strategist Lior Chorev said. So why has Kadima managed to make it to its first birthday and what does it have to do to reach more milestones? Chorev said the key was keeping the party united. The MKs who joined Kadima from different ends of the political map vowed to refrain from the personal battles and infighting that gave their previous political homes a bad reputation. Kadima officials are also uplifted by the ongoing problems in other parties that instill hope that even a weakened Kadima will continue to survive - due to its even weaker competition. The fact that most Israelis still consider themselves centrist also works in Kadima's favor. "The keys to succeed in the future are to run the country properly, to take advantage of the opportunity of being the ruling party and to ensure that the next election is held as late as possible to allow Kadima to accomplish its goals," Chorev said. KADIMA'S CRITICS diagnosed the party's perseverance differently. They said the source of Kadima's staying power so far has been its lack of ideology and the interest that all Kadima MKs share in keeping the party alive and avoiding at all cost an election that could bring about the party's demise. They said that when a party does not believe in anything, there is no reason for infighting. Former MK Gila Gamliel said she was satisfied that she did not accept an offer from Sharon to follow her former Likud colleagues to Kadima, even though she would still be in the Knesset right now if she had. She said she expects Kadima to self-destruct in due time and its top MKs to return to the parties they left behind a year ago. "I am glad I didn't join Kadima because it's a fictitious party with no ideology or principles," Gamliel said. "The people there share nothing in common except their desire for political jobs. Everything there is messed-up and my friends there are disillusioned. The fact that Peretz and [Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor] Lieberman can live together as deputy prime ministers under Olmert proves how little Kadima actually stands for." Gamliel said the war in Lebanon was a turning point for many former Kadima activists who were upset that Israel had to fight a war under a defense minister who was appointed to a job he was not qualified for due to political reasons. She said the war made people realize that the country needed to be run by a party that put principles ahead of politics. The other issue that Gamliel said has inspired a backlash against Kadima is political corruption. She said that many voters abandoned the Likud because they saw its central committee as corrupt and Kadima as a breath of fresh air. But one year and many investigations later, Kadima has inherited the Likud's corrupt reputation. Vice Premier Shimon Peres was recently cleared, but Olmert, ministers Haim Ramon and Tzahi Hanegbi, Kadima faction chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki and MKs Ruhama Avraham and Eli Aflalo are not out of the legal woods yet. Journalist Yoav Yitzhak, whose writings have been the impetus for many inquiries into Olmert, said no less than seven separate cases involving the prime minister are being investigated in State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss's office. He said the case most likely to bring down Olmert was the one alleging that he misused his influence as Jerusalem mayor to enable the development of a house he bought in the capital's German Colony. "The people who voted Kadima are very disappointed because everything they criticized the Likud for is now in Kadima," Gamliel said. DICHTER, WHO made his first foray into political life in Kadima, said he does not regret joining the party and that he was optimistic about its future. He said the leaders of the party were still the best people any party could offer to run the country properly and that every challenge Kadima endured made the party stronger. "It was a year with a lot we didn't expect," Dichter said. "In spite of all the challenges, the party looks more united and cohesive than ever. In the six months Kadima has been in power, we have passed the budget, gone through a war and soon we will bring next year's budget to a vote. We are now seeing a gradual rise in the polls after a tough period." Dichter has criticized the handling of the war, which he said brought Kadima to "the lowest place it has ever seen." But he praised Olmert for having the foresight and leadership to abandon his unilateral West Bank realignment plan in the wake of the war. "We always ask what Arik [Sharon] would have done," Dichter said. "Sharon was a special leader and losing him had a significant impact. It was hard continuing after him. But countries have to be led by the people we have, no matter what their abilities are." One of the biggest obstacles ahead for Kadima and tests for its staying power will be the party's first leadership contest, which is set to be held among party members a few months ahead of the next general election. Dichter and the other announced candidates are already working now to register new party members to get ready for the race. The fact that Kadima only has less than 20,000 members - a third as many as Labor and a fourth of the Likud - is a source of embarrassment for party leaders. Party bylaws that require a two-year cooling off period for new members who join after April 2007 could make it possible to already reveal in less than six months whether Olmert will be able to be reelected Kadima's leader and who his main competition will be. Dichter said his position as head of the party's Election Day campaign headquarters connected him to Kadima's top activists, whom he now regularly visits around the country. But he insisted that he has not begun campaigning for the party's top spot. "I am always dealing with registering people to Kadima," Dichter said. "I am not signing people for Dichter, but for Kadima. They will have decisions to make later on, but I don't sign up people on condition that they vote for me." Sheetrit and Mofaz have also been very active in registering new Kadima members. Livni has been the featured speaker at the opening events of new Kadima branches, giving her a chance to campaign. Olmert adviser Eyal Arad said the prime minister would also try hard to bring new loyalists into the party. THE RULES FOR the primary were clear to all the candidates, said Kadima Director-General Yohanan Plesner, and would prevent anyone from exploiting them to take power. He said Kadima learned from mistakes in Labor, where Peretz used an inflated membership drive to take power. The Kadima faction approved a NIS 22 million budget for the party on Monday, enabling the membership drive to begin in earnest and political activity to heat up. Responding to criticism that the party existed more on paper than in reality, Plesner said Kadima held more events nationwide over the past few months than any other party. Plesner noted that Kadima's governing council has met twice in the past month, while Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu has not allowed the Likud central committee to convene since the election, perhaps out of concern that the central committee would embarrass him. "What other party is as active across the country as we are?" Plesner said. But Kadima MKs expressed disappointment over the last Kadima council meeting two weeks ago. They said they were perturbed when Olmert showed up after a two-hour debate on changing the electoral system and told the crowd what he had already decided what the party would propose to the Knesset. Kadima MK Marina Solodkin said she had given up attending party events because she felt like a "marionette." She said she was tired of rubber-stamping decisions that she opposed and that were made by Kadima leaders. "We didn't have any real deliberations on our platform," Solodkin said. "We didn't react to the Kassam rocket attacks or other big issues that have come up. The party and government don't seem to have time to sit, think things through and talk about things." Olmert's broken promise to Solodkin about a cabinet seat upset Kadima's supporters among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The overwhelming majority of Kadima backers in that sector have already left the party, which will significantly handicap its reelection chances. "Kadima needs to make changes in the way they decide things," Solodkin said. "We formed the party because there was something missing between Likud and Labor. But not every party can stand up to challenges." Solodkin said she has considered moving to another party but that she would prefer to remain in Kadima if it would correct its course. Several other Kadima MKs have considered moving back to the Likud but their quiet rebellion was rendered irrelevant when Israel Beiteinu joined the coalition and expanded it to a solid 78 MKs. Yitzhaki, who has been one of Olmert's fiercest critics, said he hopes the coalition expansion that he pushed for will be remembered as the catalyst for the party's turnaround. "Olmert has fixed the coalition and many of our problems but there is still a lot to get done," Yitzhaki said. "We still have a lot to do before the next election to prove ourselves. There are a few years before the contest. Everything depends on how we govern now. If we don't do things right, the voters won't let us stay, but if we do, we will keep moving forward."