The rise and fall of Kadima: A cautionary tale

Though it may be hard to imagine today, the lesson of Kadima’s fall for Likud is that if Likud does not stay true to itself, it may face a Kadima-like future.

Smiling Shaul Mofaz wins Kadima primary 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Smiling Shaul Mofaz wins Kadima primary 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The arrival of “Biberman” in Israel last week may have overshadowed the other big story in Israeli political news: Israel’s largest party, Kadima, may disappear come January 22. With 28 seats in the current Knesset, one recent poll gave Kadima five seats in the next, while others place it at three seats, and at least one recent poll gave it none.
It wasn’t that long ago, however, that Kadima was branded the party of the future, the “pragmatic,” “centrist” party which could bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a responsible resolution in accordance with the supposed wishes of the majority of Israel’s citizens.
Even with all the scandals that rocked Kadima leader Ehud Olmert – the mishandling of the Lebanon War and the corruption indictments – the party remained Israel’s largest party. That should have been a testament to its staying power.
Yet today, the party is on the path to oblivion, with members of Kadima fleeing wherever they can for the nearest political life-raft, even the Likud. Those joining the Likud include Tzachi Hanegbi, Avi Dichter, Yulia Shamolov Berkovich and Arieh Bibi.
While the list-merger agreement with Yisrael Beytenu looks to secure Likud’s leadership for years to come, the rapid and surprising rise and fall of Kadima may be a cautionary tale worth considering, especially as the Likud absorbs these Kadima refugees.
KADIMA WAS a party born of betrayal of principle. Its founding leader, Ariel Sharon, and many of its founding members had been long-time members of the Likud. Tzachi Hanegbi, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert were Likud “princes.” Sharon is considered a Likud founder. For years each of these personalities stood behind the Likud’s anti-withdrawal/pro-Land of Israel platform.
Sharon himself was called the “father of the settlements” due to his efforts for the budding settlement enterprise as Minister of Agriculture in the first Likud government. In 2002, for example, he eschewed a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza saying it “would encourage terrorism and bring pressure on us” and that “the fate of Netzarim [a Jewish town in Gaza] is the fate of Negba [in the Negev] and Tel Aviv.” In January 2003, Sharon campaigned against Labor candidate Amram Mitzna who proposed such a disengagement plan.
But Sharon reversed – completely – on Palestinian statehood and disengagement. This caused him considerable aggravation in the Likud. In 2002, in a rebuke to Sharon, the Likud Central Committee almost unanimously approved a resolution against the establishment of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River.
Prior to the Disengagement Plan, in an internal party referendum, Likud members voted against the plan 60%-40%. Ultimately, an opposition group of “rebels” formed within the party and voted against the plan in the Knesset.
This opposition led Sharon to depart from the party and launch Kadima. As Sharon explained, the Disengagement presented a “historic opportunity and I will not allow anyone [i.e., the Likud hardliners] to squander it.”
Vice premier Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s right-hand man, told Newsweek at the time that Sharon’s departure was due to the fact that Sharon was “prepared for a major accommodation in the territories that Likud could not accept.”
KADIMA’S DEATH is harder to pinpoint than its birth. The party began a slow decline in popularity beginning with the social justice protests bolstering Labor and its new socially-conscious leader Shelly Yacimovich (Kadima dropped to 17-18 seats); continuing with Yair Lapid’s formation of another “centrist” left-wing party, Yesh Atid (to 12-16 seats); Livni’s replacement by Shaul Mofaz as party leader (10-12 seats); and Mofaz’s joining and then leaving the government (4-7 seats and falling).
Certainly a lack of dynamic leadership from Livni to Mofaz was a major factor in the party’s inability to stay relevant. But one striking feature throughout the decline was the readiness of Kadima’s MKs to leave the party when things turned sour.
Upon losing to Mofaz, Livni left the Knesset. When Kadima joined the coalition, one of Kadima’s founders, Haim Ramon, immediately resigned from the party. Ramon now seeks to establish his own center-left party.
When Kadima left the coalition, several Kadima MKs attempted to ditch the party and obtain portfolios in the Likud-led government. Hanegbi did leave the party and joined the Likud. Soon after, Dichter accepted a portfolio in the Likud-led government. And Olmert’s comeback – whenever it happens – doesn’t seem set to include a return to Kadima.
Beyond the prospects of retaining their Knesset seats or obtaining higher office, for many of the party’s members, there doesn’t seem to have been a real commitment to the party. Kadima members rejected the Likud principles for which they had stood for years, even decades, but never replaced it with another vision for which they were willing to risk their careers.
“Pragmatism” and “centrism” are not political philosophies. Sharon, Olmert and Livni each had different visions or at least styles in approaching the peace process and how to obtain their shared goal of a Palestinian state. Nor did the party have a clear or unique philosophy with regard to other issues. So when the going got tough for Kadima, the tough – those concerned with political survival above all – just left. There was nothing else for them to stay for.
The Likud on the other hand is blessed with a history dating to Jabotinsky and the Underground, and had two ideologically stubborn men – Menachem Begin and Yitzchak Shamir – as its first prime ministers. The vision of these men gave many Likud members a reason to stay in the Likud despite its dismal electoral prospects in 2006, when it received only 12 seats.
Netanyahu has been an able leader, but since returning to the Prime Minister’s Office he has shifted away from the Likud’s principles with the endorsement of Palestinian statehood at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, the 10-month long settlement freeze, his May 2011 Knesset speech where he signaled his willingness to relinquish sovereignty over most of Judea and Samaria, and the abandonment of settlement policy to Ehud Barak.
Though Netanyahu never requested sanction by any Likud organ for such moves and may even consider them mere tactical maneuvers, such actions by the Likud leader have an automatic effect on the Likud’s character, diluting the party’s moral strength. And though it may be hard to imagine today, the lesson of Kadima’s fall for Likud is that if Likud does not stay true to itself, it may face a Kadima-like future.

The writer is a candidate for the Likud’s Knesset list.