Opinion

03.27.12

Kadima: Losing the Vital Center

Kadima is in the midst of a primary battle between Zippi Livni and Shaul Mofaz.  But whoever wins, the prospects for the party are poor.

The promise of Kadmia was that it would galvanize the big center and shift the center of gravity in Israeli politics to form a government that could act decisively in both the foreign and domestic arenas. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this promise will be fulfilled in the near future.

The root of the problem was already apparent in the 2009 election. Kadima got the most seats, but the center-left bloc as a whole, lost seats. As a result, the right-religious bloc gained enough seats to prevent the formation of a center-left government. This is what really decided the election; because ultimately, Israeli politics is not about parties, but about electoral blocs.

The key to tipping the balance of power between these electoral blocs is to capture the center. The floating centrist vote contains two elements. First, it is centrist on peace and security. It is not interested in settlements or the rights of Palestinians, but in maintaining Israel's security and its identity and a Jewish and democratic state. When former Generals, Rabin, Barak and Sharon captured this vote, it gave them a mandate which they then used to put forward bold proposals in the diplomatic arena. Second, the center is resentful of the way in which coalition politics in Israel gives disproportional power and resources to fringe groups, especially the Ultra-Orthodox.

Livni's mistake has been to run to the Left of the centrist public by emphasizing the importance of peace negotiations. As such, she has ignored an important shift in centrist opinion. During the 2006 election campaign Kadima's realignment plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank and remove 60, 000 settlers from their homes had the support of the majority of Israelis. However, the thousands of missiles fired on Israelis in the wake of unilateral withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon, led to a major shift in priorities. The center is now focused on security and Iran; not the Palestinians. Besides which Netanyahu has done enough to convince centrists that he is willing to make similar concessions to those offered by Livni, if the other side proves able and willing to deliver. Since the centrist public is skeptical about the existence of such a partner, Livni's appeals 'to give peace a chance' may help her obtain votes from the Left (though even this seems unlikely now), but they will not alter the balance between the blocks.

Former Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz has the security credibility however, he is no more popular than Livni. Rather than wanting to provide an alternative to Likud, it seems as if the first thing he wants to do is enter a government with Likud, a move that could split Kadima. Even more significantly, Mofaz is not interested in confronting the Haredi parties. He perceives them as vital coalition allies and therefore does not support any electoral reform that will diminish their power. This is important because Netanyahu and the Likud are vulnerable on this issue, in a way that they are not regarding peace and security. The Likud recognizes that the Haredi parties' pro-Right tilt gives it a significant advantage when it comes to forming a coalition, so they do not want to change the electoral system. This means that centrists' resentment at the Haredim, could spill-over into resentment at their right-wing coalition partners, if a Kadima leader with security credentials chose to make it an issue.

In other words, the real issue is not who wins the Kadima primaries. The real issue is whether the two leading figures in the party can unite behind a winning formula. Don't hold your breath.