Reality Check: Is this really what Israel needs?

Yair Lapid is already changing the format of the country’s political debate.

Yair Lapid 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yair Lapid 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yair Lapid put it best on his Facebook page last week when he described Kadima as “a bunch of cynical politicians who have been cast out from other parties. No one has any clue as to what, if anything, they believe in.”
If nothing else, Lapid is already changing the format of the country’s political debate; his use of social media will be one of the highlights of the upcoming election campaign as for the first time we have somebody who can turn a status update into a clear and entertaining political message. Ironically, for a person who owes his considerable fame and new political career to his work as a journalist, Lapid will probably seek to bypass the traditional media as much as possible in the months to come and use Facebook as his preferred method for connecting with his core electorate.
Lapid is certainly correct in questioning Kadima’s beliefs. The party was founded solely because of Ariel Sharon’s decision to break away from the Likud following the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip and his desire to implement a further withdrawal in the West Bank. Unfortunately, Sharon was unable to see this through and Kadima has never really recovered from Sharon’s stroke in early 2006.
Although his successor Ehud Olmert succeeded in winning the general elections a few months later, Kadima’s popularity has been on a downward trajectory ever since, in part due to the failure of the Second Lebanon War and the corruption allegations surrounding Olmert, but mainly because Kadima failed to make further progress on the diplomatic front.
TZIPI LIVNI, Olmert’s replacement, has been a resounding failure as party leader. Twice she had the opportunity to form a government, and twice she failed. The first time was after Olmert’s resignation and the second after the 2009 elections when although Kadima won the largest number of seats, she was unable to forge a coalition, delivering the country into the hands of Binyamin Netanyahu. Her positioning of herself as “Mrs. Clean” failed to resonate with the electorate; to be seen as a worthy candidate for prime minister, it’s simply not enough not to smoke Cuban cigars or not to stay in luxury hotels at somebody else’s expense.
And as an opposition leader, Livni has been a disaster. With a party consisting of mainly ex-Likud members, with a smattering of opportunistic former Labor hacks, she has been unable to provide any real parliamentary threat to Netanyahu and his ruling coalition. Without a clear social-economic agenda, Kadima failed to capitalize on the summer’s social protest, which should have fallen like manna from heaven to any half-competent opposition. Unforgivably, she has also allowed Netanyahu to drag the country down into diplomatic semi-isolation without this even registering with the majority of the electorate.
To her credit, Livni did have the guts to take her party into opposition and stay there, which is more than one suspects her rival for Kadima’s leadership, Shaul Mofaz, would have done. An uncharismatic former IDF chief of staff and gray defense minister under Sharon, Mofaz needs the trappings of office to have any appeal; if he becomes Kadima’s next leader, no matter who becomes prime minister or what the coalition guidelines are following the next elections, he will want a seat at the cabinet table because without it, he is nothing.
BUT EVEN if Lapid is right in his description of Kadima, the question still remains as to why the sane Zionist mainstream electorate should transfer their loyalties to his new party, which still has to be formed. Lapid is an attractive personality and talented author – his biography of his late father Tommy Lapid (another former journalist turned centrist politician) was a stunning read and he has a winning way on the small screen – but these are not necessarily the qualities that form the basis of a successful, long-term political career.
From Yigal Yadin’s Dash party in 1977 through to the Center Party led by Yitzhak Mordechai in 1999 and Tommy Lapid’s anti-haredi Shinui, which won 15 seats in 2003, becoming the country’s third-largest party at the time, Israel has seen center parties come and go, all of them catching the limelight for a brief moment (and in the case of Dash, enabling the end of Labor’s almost three-decade rule of the country), but none lasted more than a couple of election cycles.
Lapid succinctly sums up his political beliefs in three words (two in Hebrew): “Where’s the money?” He argues that the whole argument over Israel’s future can be distilled into this question. Pledging to represent the middle-class, who pay taxes, serve in the army reserves and generally fulfill their civic duties, Lapid wants to see the country’s budget redistributed so that the middle class will see a true return for the fruit of their labors, instead of subsidizing other, non-productive and fanatical sectors of society, from the haredi yeshiva student who will never work in his lifetime to the hilltop settler who enjoys better roads than the majority of urban residents.
In other words, Lapid is forming the middle-class version of the Pensioners’ Party. Is that really what Israel needs?
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.