Kadima faces big questions

By most accounts, the health of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains stable—but serious enough that few in the press expect him to return to public life.

Sharon suffered his major stroke on Jan. 4, about a month and a half after the prime minister broke from the right-leaning Likud party to form the centrist Kadima party.

While many expect Kadima will win a majority in the March 28 general election, based on several polls taken since Sharon was hospitalized, this centrist party has an uncertain future.

“Down the road further, once Kadima gets into the Knesset [parliament for Israel], it’s going to split apart into two or three parts,” predicts Ian Lustick, a professor of political science at Penn who holds the Bess W. Heyman Chair. “Sharon formed the party without anything but the name.”

Lustick adds that it’s impossible to extract the guiding philosophies of the Kadima party, even from Sharon’s policies. “It was meant to be a maneuver … that kept him afloat, politically,” says Lustick, an expert in Middle Eastern politics. “The question is not what it is, but what it will be.”

Other centrist parties have emerged over the years to help solve Israel’s problems, but those groups have usually declined rapidly and disappeared. Kadima would be the biggest and the first to form a government. Lustick predicts that Kadima will win about 40 seats in the March election.

Last week, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Ehud Olmert was chosen as the stand-in for Sharon, as Kadima party chairman. According to Lustick, Olmert appears to have the support of Washington, having discussed Palestinean voting in East Jerusalem with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Olmert, who Lustick says is an experienced, opportunistic politician without a personal following, is located “on the left edge,” or holds a more dovish position in Kadima. Indeed, Olmert’s family is notably left-wing and one of his sons is a pacifist.

The left-wing Labor party, led by Amir Peretz, will likely come in second, in the low 20s in the general election, says Lustick. Sharon’s old right-wing Likud party will probably come in third, claiming about 14 to 18 seats. Led now by Binyamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, Lustick says that many of the Likud voters—Jews from modest Arab or Muslim backgrounds—may instead vote Labor since Netanyahu once cut back on many reforms for those people and also because Peretz, Labor’s leader, is directly opposed to these policies and is himself of Moroccan descent.

What remains to be seen is if Kadima and Labor can form a partnership through which the peace process can be resumed. If this does not happen, says Lustick, there could be another Intifada—or Palestinian effort to end Israeli occupation—from the West Bank. “That new Intifada is ready to explode,” says Lustick. “I think it will be an act of grace if it does not explode before elections.”

Originally published on January 26, 2006