Israel Pulse

Are Israelis ready to move to the center?

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Article Summary
Public support for the establishment of a “new Kadima” suggests that a significant segment of the Israeli electorate would back a party with a clear diplomatic agenda for a two-state solution.

The eve of the March 2015 Israeli elections brought the end of the Kadima Party. The polls had predicted the party's disappearance from the political map, and its chairman, Shaul Mofaz, decided not to run. Although the public’s disappointment with the party, which was created in a political explosion in November 2005, was clear, a new poll surprisingly indicates that the Israeli public's desire for a centrist party like Kadima is still alive and kicking. In fact, it would appear to have a rather significant constituency.

To mark the decade since the founding of Kadima, the Midgam Institute together with iPanel conducted a poll for the Israel TV Channel 2 program “Meet the Media.” According to the survey, the results of which were presented on the Nov. 29 edition of “Meet the Media,” 35% of respondents said they support the creation of a center party like Kadima. The data were surprising, not just because the public had no interest in Kadima less than a year ago, but also because the poll was conducted during the ongoing, serious wave of terrorism, which would typically strengthen the right. Instead, the poll revealed that about a third of the public essentially backs the reestablishment of a center party that advanced the idea of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. 

Because of Kadima’s disappointing end, the party tends to be treated, unjustly, as having been a failure. The public’s support for a “new Kadima” proves that the idea on which it was founded had legitimacy and remains relevant today. 

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon founded Kadima in November 2005, a few months after the disengagement from Gaza. Sharon had come to the conclusion that he couldn't carry out his agenda as prime minister while in Likud. These were the days of a rebellion against Sharon in Likud, which made it difficult for him to function in the party and did not align with his high degree of popularity among the general public. Sharon reached his decision after long months of deliberation and consultation, but from the moment the die was cast, Israeli politics changed forever.

The political tsunami included the almost complete destruction of Likud and the shift of several prominent figures, foremost among them Shimon Peres, from the Labor Party to Kadima. Likud lost a third of its Knesset members. It fell from a powerful governing party to suddenly being an opposition party whose survival was in doubt, as if hit by a natural disaster. Likud lost many of its senior members as well as a large portion of its moderate voters. 

The logic in founding Kadima was based on data that appear to be representative of the situation today: There are around 40 out of 120 Knesset seats at the political center simply waiting for someone to lead. In the case of Kadima, the secret of its success from the moment of its establishment was that Sharon had created and led it. Even after the Gaza disengagement, Sharon maintained high approval ratings, including among a large segment of Likud. 

In contrast to centrist parties that preceded Kadima, like Dash (founded in 1976 by Yigal Yadin, a former chief of staff) and Shinui (founded in 1974 by Amnon Rubenstein), and centrist parties that followed it, like Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Kadima was created from within the government. Sharon, a strong prime minister, decided one morning to leave his party and create a new political framework, explaining that the move was intended to enable him to continue governing and to implement his worldview. 

That Kadima won the election for the 17th Knesset, in March 2006, after Sharon’s traumatic exit following a stroke in January 2006, only two months after he had created it, proved that the public had placed its trust in the idea and platform of the party. Ehud Olmert, who led the party during that election, was never beloved by the Israeli public or within Likud. Nevertheless, he succeeded in leading Kadima to victory and held on to power even though he declared during the campaign that he intended to implement the convergence plan, Israel's unilateral closure of small, outlying settlements in Judea and Samaria and the settlers convergence, or consolidation, into the large settlement blocs. In short, it would have complemented the disengagement from Gaza. 

In the 2006 elections, Kadima achieved an impressive 29 seats, making it the largest party in the Knesset. This figure demonstrated the public’s desire to grant power to a large center party that would lead the country toward a diplomatic compromise with the Palestinians. Tzipi Livni, who succeeded Olmert as party chair, had, like him, left the Likud, and during the election campaign for the 18th Knesset, she made no secret of her vision for a division of land on the basis of two states. The 28 seats that her party won in February 2009 were further evidence of the public’s desire for a serious diplomatic process.

Following that election, Kadima remained the largest party in the Knesset — the Likud followed with 27 seats — but Livni could not build a coalition and squandered her accomplishment while in the opposition. Kadima, founded as a ruling party, did not know how to function as an opposition party and found itself floundering in a leadership crisis. This ultimately led to Livni’s ouster, to the election of Mofaz as chair and to the loss of voters and disintegration of its institutions until the bitter end. 

Yesh Atid’s entry into the political arena as the new, fashionable center party in elections for the 19th Knesset, held January 2013, was the last nail in Kadima’s coffin. It hardly passed the threshold required to gain Knesset representation and slowly faded, having won only two seats. 

A decade after Kadima's founding, it would be wrong to call the party a failure even though it has de facto ceased functioning because of leadership problems. Thanks to Sharon's leadership, it succeeded in being the best thing in politics for a period of time. While it’s hard to know when and if another opportunity will arise to establish a similarly large centrist party with an explicit agenda regarding the division of land with the Palestinians, it is clear that a significant portion of the Israeli public at the political center wants such a party. The problem is that at the moment, there’s no one to lead them.

Found in: two-state solution, settlements, kadima, israeli occupation, gaza, ehud olmert, ariel sharon

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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