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Kadima: Not yet another centrist casualty

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In Israel’s fractious politics, parties poised as ‘centrist’ have repeatedly proven themselves long on well-meaning rhetoric but short on survivability.

Kadima, formed in 2005 as Ariel Sharon’s brainchild, broke this mould by becoming the first and only centrist party to win a parliamentary majority in 2006 and lead a governing coalition. Kadima’s success, or ‘big bang’ as it is referred to in Israel, in 2006 was propelled by one revolutionary idea: a pragmatic peace based on a unilateral withdrawal from the Palestinian Territories and the redrawing of Israel’s borders.

Yet only three years later, Kadima found itself in the opposition despite having captured the most votes for a second straight time. During its three years in government, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert found himself facing various challenges, including rocket attacks from Sinai and Gaza and two costly wars, one in Lebanon and another in post-withdrawal Gaza. Olmert, facing corruption charges, eventually resigned in September 2008. Kadima seemed the latest in a long line of centrist parties destined to fail.

Kadima recently held its primary the last week of March, and Tehran-born, former defense minister Shaul Mofaz ousted Tzipi Livni as party leader by an embarrassing two votes to one. Livni had once been touted as Israel’s second female ‘prime minister in-waiting’ following Golda Meir in the early 1970s, making the results that much more shocking. The question is whether Kadima can remain a centrist party under Mofaz’s leadership? How the party fares under Mofaz will determine whether Kadima becomes the latest in a long history of casualties facing centrist parties in Israel.

At least five structural factors, in addition to individual personalities and relationships, have affected the fate of centrist parties in Israel despite the existence of a large group of centrist voters. First, these parties tend not to have clear and decisive programmes or focus on a single major issue, making it difficult for voters to identify with such parties over the long term. Centrist parties are reactive by nature and emphasize their pragmatism. The centre of the political spectrum tends to consist of floating voters rather than rigid ideologues, so any party hoping to attract and retain these votes has to struggle to remain relevant.

Livni took over the party leadership from Olmert in 2008 following his resignation, but was pushed into becoming leader of the opposition in 2009 when she could not form a governing coalition. Iran by then had come to dominate the political and security agenda to the detriment of the question of Palestinian statehood and a negotiated peace. More critically, Likud’s Benyamin Netanyahu publicly, albeit cautiously, announced just two and a half months after taking power in 2009 that he supported the idea of “two free peoples living side by side in this small land,” which, together with unilateral withdrawal, had constituted Kadima’s trump card since 2006. Livni, as leader of the opposition, failed to address this crucial shift in Likud’s position. When biting socioeconomic disparities brought Israelis of all stripes out into the streets last summer, all she did was offer token support. So on several of the most important issues facing Israelis, Livni and her party were seen as increasingly irrelevant.

A second factor affecting centrist parties in Israel is that in their cadre membership they frequently attract disaffected people from the left and right sides of the political spectrum. Centrist parties’ combination of vague programming and an ideologically diverse membership with few unifying, overarching goals, however, can severely compromise their internal logic. As a result, there is a tendency for its voters to ‘return to the fold.’ Kadima’s membership spans the political spectrum, but its most prominent representatives defected from the two historical poles of competition, Labor and especially Likud. According to many observers, now that he is in charge, the hawkish Mofaz will likely join Netanyahu’s rightwing government either before or after the next parliamentary elections, officially slated for late 2013. Whether Kadima will retain the vote of the centrists depends on how Mofaz can differentiate himself from both Netanyahu and his former ideological home, Likud. A recent Haaretz editorial charged that Kadima has become “for all intents and purposes a right-wing party.” The result, the article continued, is “democracy without opposition and a party without policy.”

A third structural factor is that the majority of centrist parties in previous Knessets were personality-driven and often suffered from weak party institutions. Kadima’s founders possessed the advantage of already being in government at the time, and hence were able to institutionalize party structures fairly quickly. Still, Kadima’s initial success clearly owed much to Ariel Sharon’s personality and leadership style. But the script has changed now that other issues overshadow the peace process. While Kadima may continue to plod on for a while without a charismatic leader like Sharon at the helm, party longevity will require both tactical and strategic adjustments. Hints as to what issues Kadima will focus on under Mofaz’s leadership may already be emerging given his origins, military background and the importance of a potentially nuclear Iran in Israel’s collective imagination. Nevertheless, Mofaz would also be extremely well advised to pay great attention to socioeconomic issues.

The convergence of both left and right political parties towards the centre, leaving little room for genuinely centrist parties, is a fourth structural factor that affects the success of Israel’s centrist parties. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, Kadima beat Likud to the majority by a single seat. Livni, however, was unable to form a governing coalition after crossing swords with the religious Shas party, arguably due as much to her political naïveté as to personal conviction. As a result, Netanyahu was given the opportunity to form a coalition government and asked Labor to join him. Labor party chairman Ehud Barak, former prime minister and Israel’s most decorated soldier, jumped at the chance to bring his left-of-centre party into a governing coalition, even if the emerging coalition was mostly comprised of nationalist and religious parties. Barak subsequently incurred the wrath of his party colleagues for accommodating the right far beyond Labor’s comfort threshold. As for Likud, by agreeing to a two-state solution Netanyahu effectively pushed his party leftwards. The dilemma for a party like Kadima is that this type of broad coalition spans the same electoral space that it seeks to occupy. As Professor Avraham Diskin, one of Israel’s most prominent political scientists, explains, “Now everybody understands that the competition is in the centre…The problem for Kadima is not that voters have moved to the left or right but that the major left- and right wing parties [Labor and Likud] have moved to the centre. Even the leftist Shelli Yechimovich [Labor’s current party chief] portrays herself as a centrist on all major issues. This wasn’t the situation in 2006. Back then, Likud clearly stood for ‘Greater Israel’ and Labor was ‘Peace Now’,” he explained.

Furthermore, in the next parliamentary elections Kadima may face direct competition on its own turf from several new parties and individuals, including the popular journalist-turned-politician, Yair Lapid, who earlier this year rejected Livni’s invitation to join Kadima. He referred to the party 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.” However, he has not yet established a party. Barak, on the other hand, broke away from his Labor party with four other members of the Knesset in early 2011 to form another self-styled centrist party known as “Independence.”

Finally, centrist parties cannot afford to join a coalition with either side of the political spectrum without compromising their raison d’etre. During her time in opposition, Livni visibly enhanced her standing as a ‘principled’ politician, something almost unheard of in one of the most politicized societies in the world. Viable parties, however, are forged in government, not in opposition. Earlier centrist parties that joined ‘coalitions of the unwilling’ had to because of their weak electoral performance. Kadima, paradoxically, remains the single largest party in terms of seats. Should Mofaz decide to bring Kadima into Netanyahu’s coalition government, internal rifts and even defections are expected that could leave the party with a far higher concentration of right-wingers. Recent polls suggest that a Mofaz-led Kadima would win only about half its current number of seats in the next parliamentary elections, likely to the advantage of a ‘revived’ Labor.

There may yet, however, be a more optimistic scenario. If Kadima is to avoid the pitfalls of earlier centrist parties, a Knesset majority is clearly not enough. It must also secure the crucial, pivotal bargaining position in the next governing coalition (something Sharon had managed to pull off because of his unilateral disengagement plan). Multiparty coalitions depend greatly on the leverage of the party controlling the centre “and only in a rare 10 percent of cases are pivotal parties skipped over like we saw happen to Kadima in 2009,” said Diskin. I asked him how he viewed Kadima’s prospects and whether it still had relevancy. “After the primaries, everyone talked about Kadima being weakened with fewer supporters and Labor growing in strength. But if you look at the total number of seats of all rightwing parties combined compared to the leftwing, this is the first time the former is shrinking, and this is important. Mofaz is not Sharon. But Kadima won’t disappear although it will shrink considerably. Even with 10 seats, it will remain very relevant if it controls the pivotal point. Moreover, it still remains a convenient potential partner for Netanyahu who has proven several times that even with a rightwing majority, he’s interested in including the major parties to Likud’s left, starting with Kadima.”

So, the maverick party that took Israeli politics by storm back in 2006 has not quite yet been consigned to the heap of centrist failures, contrary to popular feeling and the relative lack of press covering the primaries. For those who believe in a strong, moderate centre in a country obsessed with the extremes, this can only be good news. The question is, does the enigmatic Mofaz have what it takes to steer that risky middle course?

This article by Open Briefing contributing analyst Kevjn Lim was first published by openDemocracy on 11 April 2012.