Friday, December 25, 2009

Does Kadima deserve to live?



[Profound ideological differences...not]


Netanyahu tries to throw a party


Hearken back to the great ideological divisions of the Zionist movement: Weizmann versus Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion versus Begin, Mapai versus Herut.

In stark contrast, the waning days of "the Naughties" will be remembered for Binyamin Netanyahu's thwarted machinations to entice Kadima Knesset members to quit their party and join his government - not out of principle, but for patronage.

While Israelis worried that Netanyahu was exhausting himself grappling with the emotionally draining Gilad Schalit affair (he kept rushing home to rest and take medication for a sore throat), it turned out he had the energy to oversee the final moves in a months-long behind-the-scenes scheme to dismantle Kadima by luring at least seven of its 28 legislators into joining his coalition. He offered cars, offices, budgets, even a golden parachute to nervous defectors.

The late Yitzhak Rabin similarly enticed Tsomet Knesset members Gonen Segev, Esther Salmovitz and Alex Goldfarb to defect his way in 1995. Their support proved critical in passing the Oslo II accords 61-59. Rabin's scheming ultimately shattered Tsomet, but at least he was inspired by principle - an ill-fated quest to make peace with Yasser Arafat.

In contrast, Netanyahu's desire to splinter Kadima involved no discernible matter of principle, merely a desire to widen his political base and a goodly measure of revenge.

Tzipi Livni put her interests first in March 2009, by refusing to join a Netanyahu-led government which could have been stable, centrist and reformist. Instead, she forced him to cobble together a coalition that depends on the Orthodox parties, thereby stymieing desperately needed electoral reform, a gateway to solving a range of systemic problems plaguing the political system. Livni haughtily predicted Netanyahu's government would fall within a year and deported herself as the premier-in-waiting. Meantime, she alienated many in her own Knesset faction.

YESTERDAY, Netanyahu finally held an oft-delayed meeting with Livni on national security issues and, citing "the security situation," unexpectedly invited Kadima to join a national unity government. Livni is suspiciously mulling the offer.

By raiding her party, Netanyahu was demonstrating that his grip on power was as solid as her's was shaky. Though he didn't gain any Kadima defectors, he did expose the party's fragile political condition. Under these circumstances, Livni's influence in a Netanyahu government would now be limited.

Even without an assist from Netanyahu, it had become increasingly clear that Livni's flash-in-the-pan popularity was not going to translate into political substance. She and her No. 2, Shaul Mofaz, despise each other. They waited until this week's defection crisis before meeting yesterday to discuss a way forward, but still could not agree. Neither appears to place the interests of Kadima at the top of their agenda, though a split will strengthen neither.

WHATEVER else Netanyahu's gamesmanship foreshadows, it is testament to the end of ideology in Israeli politics. There are few philosophical differences between Netanyahu, Labor's Ehud Barak and Livni. It's all personal. They and their "lean and hungry" understudies agree on just about everything, from how to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians (assuming Israel had a peace partner) to the fundamentals of domestic economic policy.

This realignment of the body politic is, alas, unaccompanied by a mechanism to implement the will it reflects.

AMIDST all of this week's plotting and maneuvering, there is a larger good at stake.

Netanyahu has dragged the Likud kicking and screaming to the political center, sometimes employing methods not found in Roberts Rules of Order. The possibility that his party could yet be hijacked by the radical Feiglin camp cannot be ruled out. Labor, meanwhile, is moribund.

That's why it is essential there to be a viable "third way" party to serve as a potential vehicle for progress and reform. Kadima garnered the most votes in the last two elections. It still harbors a Sharon-esque sentiment for pragmatism that's worth salvaging. Were Livni and Mofaz to knock each other out, perhaps a consensus-building viable new leader would emerge.

The end of ideology should have meant an end to pointless polarization, not an end to principle. The Left cannot promise "peace now" and the Right cannot realistically preserve "Greater Israel."

Ariel Sharon's Kadima established an alternative view to such false either/or political choices - one that's now embraced by the four largest parties in the Knesset.

Despite its failings, Kadima and its legacy are worth preserving.

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