Mother of all one-man parties

Ariel Sharon is both the solution and the problem.

sharon 88 (photo credit: )
sharon 88
(photo credit: )
There's been a lot of exhilaration in the past few weeks around Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's breakaway new party, Kadima. Many politically savvy voters, sick to their stomachs over Israel's dysfunctional party system, are hoping Kadima represents a new political direction. Hope springs eternal. Just as it did with David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan's Rafi Party in the late 1960s; with the reformist Democratic Movement for Change in the late 1970s; and with the star-studded Center Party in the late 1990s. Even Tommy Lapid's Shinui Party looked like a breath of fresh air when it was launched. All these hopes for molding the political spectrum into a more rational configuration fizzled. Some parties defied the pollsters by failing to attract large numbers of voters, while others such as the DMC disintegrated as Menachem Begin rode political circles around them. Which does not necessarily mean that a similar fate will inexorably befall Kadima; but there are lessons that should be learned even now from those earlier reshuffling experiments - or as the hapless Haim Ramon would have it, the Big Bang. KADIMA, of course, is all about Ariel Sharon's determination to cash in on the public's favorable response to the political courage and sagacity he displayed in ramming through his Gaza disengagement policy, in the face of Likud majority opposition. But Sharon is also Kadima's major problem in that he has been creating it as the mother of all one-man parties. With the decline of ideological fervor worldwide over the past three decades even Israeli politics have become far less issue oriented. Increasingly, old Zionism's ideological disputations seem to have given way to competitions between individual leaders. The main expression of this tectonic shift came with the adoption of the direct election of prime ministers in the early 1990s. Personalities with a mania for the grandiose - Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak - blossomed in this environment. Netanyahu had never even been a minister before becoming our directly-elected prime minister, and Barak had served very brief terms as a junior minister before winning election to the premiership. Their victories quickly convinced politicians, academics and pundits that the new system was a terrible mistake. The direct election of the prime minister was reversed shortly after Sharon came into office. AND YET, much of what was wrong with that discredited approach is what seems to be happening in the case of Kadima. The entire party revolves around him - and only him (at age 78 which is the around the age Ben-Gurion quit the premiership and entered a state of wrathful semi-senility). Moreover, the talk is that Sharon will also personally decide the party's list of candidates to the 17th Knesset. Sharon's opponents in the Likud Party complained, justifiably, that in the 2003 election campaign, he had spoken only vaguely about being in favor of making "painful concessions" to the Palestinians, but had campaigned explicitly and vehemently against Amram Mitzna's Labor Party policy proposal for disengaging from Gush Katif. Now, Sharon is being just as maddeningly vague about his policy toward the settlements and about the illegal outposts in Judea and Samaria; the final route of the security barrier, and the actual substance of his newly imagined anti-poverty policies. Biz a hundert und tzwanzig - may you live to be 120 years old Arik, but for a totally new party headed by a near octogenarian, we the voters are entitled, at the very least, to know the approximate line-up of the leaders who will take over, after you leave the scene. Justice Minister Zippi Livni is one of the very few impressive political figures who have followed Sharon out of the Likud and into Kadima. Finance Minister Ehud Olmert is a different kettle of fish. He's spent a good deal of his career skirting illegality and immorality. Much the same can be said for the latest Kadima recruit, Tzahi Hanegbi. In all democracies, political leaders develop impressive innate capabilities to speak out of both sides of their mouths. In Israel, this has been honed to near perfection in recent decades. In this context, it seems to me that voters deserve a truthful, frank rendition of where Kadima wants to take the country. We have a right to expect more from Sharon's new party than from the jaded older ones. I for one would make my vote for Kadima conditional on knowing whether Tzippi Livni represents the essence of the new party or Tzahi Hanegbi does.