Kadima Gets 16 Months Political Life Support; Bibi A Puzzle

It is easy to understand Kadima’s move, but it is harder to fathom Netanyahu’s.

A funny thing happened on the way to the September 4 Knesset elections. Instead of elections we got a ” Unity” government between the Likud and Kadima. The term “unity government” is a misnomer. Unity governments are formed between the leading party of the right and the leading party of the left.

Binyamin Netanyahu

Binyamin Netanyahu - Photo by Reuters

The Kadima party was an amphibious party in the 2006 elections, drawing support from both the right and the left. In the 2009 elections it had become a party of the left and essentially cannibalized Labor and Meretz to win its 28 seats in the Knesset. These voters from the left had already begun to desert Kadima by the time of the recent Kadima party primary.

The victory of Shaul Mofaz in that primary and the resignation of Tzipi Livni from the Knesset completed the process. The Kadima party was the leader of the opposition in name only, and by virtue of being the largest faction outside of the government. The real opposition was now the Labor Party of Shelly Yechimowich and the Future Party of journalist Yair Lapid. There was a good chance that if elections were held in September there would be nothing left of the Kadima party. Forget the notion that the Kadima party has gotten time to get its act together before facing the voters. By joining the government Kadima party Knesset members have burned their bridges as an alternative. They have one recourse: to be admitted back into the Likud.

The 2005 split left a lot of bad blood between the two parties, but politics not only makes strange bedfellows; it also provides for reconciliations. This is particularly true for center parties in Israel’s history. Rafi of David Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres that split from Mapai  (the forerunner of the Israeli Labor Party) in 1965 eventually came back and took over the Labor Party. Refugees from the Democratic Movement for Change went back to Labor and Likud, then came the Center Party and now it is Kadima’s turn. At the grassroots contacts were maintained and there were cases of Likud and Kadima canvassers intervening in the other party’s primaries to help a favorite candidate.

While one can understand the logic of the Kadima party, it is more difficult to fathom Netanyahu’s motives. One would like to believe that he wanted to postpone elections till the matter of Iran was resolved one way or another, as the Environment Minister Gilad Erdan explained. Another rationale is the budgetary situation. The global economic downturn is beginning to impact on the Israeli economy as well, meaning that government tax receipts are declining at a time when the social justice movement is clamoring for increased welfare infusions. The top-heavy majority of 94 Knesset members means that a less generous budget can be passed. A revised Tal Law on the yeshiva army exemption, and perhaps a slight tweak to the electoral system, could also help by increasing the country’s workforce and somewhat streamlining the Israeli political system (for example by raising the electoral threshold to 5%.)

Some political commentators have already speculated, perhaps out of wishful thinking, that armed with a supermajority Netanyahu will be able to ignore the nationalist wing in his party, and in a sense emulate Ariel Sharon. They claim that the stormy Likud conference Sunday, where the Prime Minister’s desire to assume the temporary presidency of the convention was rebuffed, caused him both to reconsider early election and appreciate the growing nationalist tilt within the governing party. With elections postponed he now has the time to counter the takeover of his party by “extremist” elements. One cannot totally discount this possibility as Netanyahu has not been a paragon of ideological consistency.

It is definite that in a year and a half the Prime Minister will have to come up with a list of achievements to justify the partnership. Kadima, which was bought very cheap in terms of portfolios, got its return merely by adding a year and a half to its political existence.

If the partnership with Kadima works well, Netanyahu could plausibly announce an amnesty and a readmission to the Likud of Kadima party members, thus changing the political coloration of his party.

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By Amiel Ungar