Snap Judgment: And then, there were three

Why has Kadima apparently succeeded in creating a viable 'third' party?

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Remember John Anderson? Well, you probably have to be an American of a certain age to answer that question in the affirmative - and even then, maybe not. Before we get to Anderson though, here's a question for those with shorter memory spans: Which brilliant media pundit, after the last elections when Shinui surged to 15 Knesset seats and became the third biggest parliamentary faction, wrote that "It may well be that Shinui will emerge as one of the two main parties in future elections." Umm… actually, that was me. So given my record of political prophecy, it is perhaps time for me to eat a substantial serving of crow (though perhaps a more kosher fowl would be more appropriate in these circumstances). Or maybe not. Like many others who once saw great promise in Shinui's rise, I watched in horrified fascination the slow-motion car wreck the party turned into over the past year, as it squandered its political fortunes through a series of self-inflicted injuries that could easily have been avoided. Despite this, Shinui could still probably have survived in some form or another had it not been for the fact that another party emerged to carry its banner of the political center, and capture the hearts and minds of the rising Israeli mainstream electorate foretold by Shinui's rise. THERE IS no doubt that that the creation of Kadima was the stake through the heart that finally finished Shinui off, grabbing almost all its voters. Indeed, rather than indulge in a mea culpa, I'll save face by taking credit for having at least foreseen the emergence of a centrist faction - by any other name - that threatens to shatter for good the de-facto two-party monopoly on political power which has held firm since the founding of the state. This prospect holds no less true if Kadima's current decline at the polls continues at the present rate, or even accelerates. Even in the unlikely chance that it fails to form the next government, it has clearly emerged in the past few months as a challenge to the hegemony enjoyed by Likud and Labor. And even if Kadima should break up in the coming years, as many predict, its residual pieces by themselves would likely be big enough to remain significant factions in any future government. So no matter who wins on March 28, the Israeli political landscape will have undergone decisive change in this election, and is unlikely to return to its previous configuration any time in the near future. THE QUESTION then, is why, after numerous failed attempts over the years to create a viable "third" party, has Kadima seemingly succeeded where the likes of Rafi, the Democratic Movement for Change, the Third Way, the Center Party and Shinui have all failed? Certainly Kadima is going into this election enjoying certain advantages denied all of its ideological predecessors. None of them was founded by a hugely popular sitting prime minister; none went to the polls as the ruling party; none contended against a Likud and Labor both weakened by major defections to its newly formed rival. Yet a closer look at those circumstances reveals them to have somewhat less significance than has been awarded them in the media. Any coattails that Kadima has ridden the past month on public sympathy for the stricken Ariel Sharon have surely faded away, as it becomes clear that his condition, at the very least, precludes any possible return to political life. While Kadima holds the reins of government, the past few weeks have shown, with the rise of Hamas and the fall of Kassams near Ashkelon, incumbency can quickly become a liability when the always-volatile situation here takes a turn for the worse. And Likud and Labor have now both held internal elections which everyone agrees have brought into their Knesset list attractive new faces to replace those who have left. HOWEVER, RECENT polling also shows in this campaign that personalities - including prime ministerial candidates Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Binyamin Netanyahu - are not the determining factor for most voters. Kadima's advantage is largely that it is simply not Labor or Likud, and is being perceived by the public, rightly or wrongly, as holding the middle ground between the two, with Olmert talking of further disengagements as Peretz meets with Abu Mazen and Netanyahu talks of moving the security barrier eastwards to encompass more settlements. But before I make any political predictions this time, let's get back to John Anderson, whom I remember well if only because he was a major figure in the first national election in which I cast a vote, the 1980 presidential race. Anderson was a moderate Republican congressman from Ohio who, upset by the nomination of the right-wing Ronald Reagan as his party's nominee and distressed by the performance in office of Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter, embarked on a seemingly quixotic quest for the White House as an independent candidate. Although he never really had a chance, Anderson created a tremendous media stir, and the six million votes he earned were seen as the forerunner of an emerging moderate vote. That notion seemed vindicated when Ross Perot tripled Anderson's results as a third party candidate in the 1992 election, but Perot soon fizzled as a political force, and the US two-party system today seems firmer than ever. The dream of a successful "third way" faction in electoral landscapes dominated by two major parties is hardly unique to Israel or the US; in the UK for example, the Liberal Democrats have striven for years to break the hold on power enjoyed by the Labor and Conservative parties. In most democracies though, when it comes to major parties, two's company and three's a crowd. So while Kadima may have temporarily upped the ante to three, it would clearly take a greater political prophet than I to declare with certainty whether, this time, the center will truly hold. The writer is former managing editor of The Jerusalem Post and director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem Media Resource Center.