Sunday evening Kadima Education Minister Meir Sheetrit extolled Kadima's "uniqueness" as the one Israeli party which "has disengaged from all ideology."
Sheetrit proudly proclaimed: "We don't have the baggage of the heritage of Ze'ev Jabotinsky or Berl Katzenelson [the ideological founding fathers of Likud and Labor] on our back. We are looking only to the future."
When the polls close this evening, the most non-deliberative election campaign in Israeli history will be brought to an end. If the opinion polls bear out, Sheetrit's party will emerge as the uncontested ruling party of Israel. How is it that Israelis are expected to embrace a party that stands for nothing?
Israeli society became alienated from ideology with the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the start of the Palestinian terror war in 2000. The bombings, calls for jihad and indoctrination of child suicide bombers all served to convince the Israeli public that the leftist utopian ideology of peace through appeasement was a lie. The messianic ideology of the religious Right was never considered.
This non-ideological atmosphere was eminently suited for Ariel Sharon. Sharon promised the Israeli public neither peace nor victory. He promised the public quiet. He told the public, "Follow me, and everything will be alright. Trust me."
And they did. They trusted him when he took them to the Right in combating Palestinian terrorists. And they trusted him when he took them to the far Left in expelling Israeli civilians and withdrawing IDF forces from Gaza and northern Samaria. They trusted him even though during his five-year tenure, Israel absorbed more civilian casualties than it had known since the founding of the state.
As his political consultants told Yediot Aharonot on Friday, if Sharon were running today instead of Ehud Olmert, he would not have announced any plan to conduct massive expulsions of Israelis and withdrawals of IDF forces from Judea and Samaria, as Olmert has. "He would have said: 'I'm the message. I'm the plan.'"
Without Sharon, his new party, Kadima, is led by undistinguished machine politicians and by Shimon Peres, the failed ideologue of the Left. They have retained Sharon's public support base first and foremost by presenting themselves as non-ideological policy wonks capable of leading the country on the basis of daily cost-benefit analyses. They tell the Israeli public that its charismatic leader has been seamlessly replaced by a bureaucratic leadership no less competent and non-ideological.
THE PROBLEM is that however wonkish Kadima's leaders may be, they are not, in fact competent. Diplomatically the promised "iron wall" of international support for their declared policy of isolating Hamas held up for less than a day. Far from enhancing Israel's security, their unilateral retreat from Gaza brought Hamas to power and enabled Gaza's transformation into a global terror base and launching ground for rocket and mortar attacks against southern Israel. And Kadima's wonks can do nothing to remedy this situation.
Since they are dedicated to continuing the implementation of Sharon's expulsion and retreat policy, they cannot admit that its implementation in Gaza was responsible for bringing Hamas to power. Similarly, they cannot admit that Hamas is a threat to Israel, since they plan to further empower it by giving it Judea and Samaria.
And if Hamas is not a threat, then there is no reason for the international community to boycott it. As well, since their only policy is the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Judea and Samaria, Kadima's wonks cannot recognize or address the dangers that are all but certain to greet Israel if the Hamas jihad state is extended to the doorways of every major city in Israel. They can make no note of the dangers that such a Hamas state will constitute for the Hashemite regime in Jordan and the American-supported government in Iraq.
Policies built around cost-benefit analyses based on polling data and daily State Department press briefings – while perhaps necessary for a party based on nothing – are incapable of contending with the threats Israel faces and the responsibilities the government holds toward its citizenry and its allies.
Tragically, the public is not able to see this because, with the help of the elections law and the media, Kadima has been able to obfuscate the shortcomings of its central policy and the incompetence of its leaders. Indeed Kadima has been able to make hating Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu the central issue of the elections.
NETANYAHU IS a loyal representative of Likud's traditional ideology that Israel must fight, not appease its enemies. As such, he is the only political leader who based his campaign around showing the dangers of Kadima's expulsion and retreat policy.
By making hating Netanyahu the central issue of the campaign, Kadima's leaders have succeeded in deflecting all his warnings against their only policy. As Arel Segal put it in Ma'ariv on Friday, if one takes the logical model of A; but B; so C, then the central theme of this election cycle has been, "Binyamin Netanyahu warns that we stand before existential danger. But Binyamin Netanyahu is an anxious hysteric, a demagogue and, worst of all, a skinflint. And so, Israel does not stand before any existential danger."
THE ELECTIONS law has facilitated Kadima's campaign by placing censorious limitations on political speech. In the current non-ideological atmosphere many of Israeli society's previously shared assumptions have been undermined. As a result soundbites like "Gaza has turned into Hamastan" are no longer automatically understood. Now they have to be explained.
The elections law bars political parties from buying airtime and so limits their broadcasting rights to short, state-financed commercials where they are incapable of transmitting anything but telegraphed messages. That is, the elections law blocks public debate.
Unable to communicate its ideologically-grounded policy message in its ads, the Likud was at the mercy of Kadima and the centralized media to get its messages out. It needed Kadima, because without Olmert's consent there could be no candidates' debate. It needed the media, because in the absence of paid advertising or a televised debate, only the media could provide a forum for the Likud (and every other party) to engage the public in a discussion of its policies.
Olmert, whose message can only be effectively represented by soundbites, understandably refused to debate Netanyahu and Labor's Amir Peretz. Far from providing a forum for political discussion, the media effectively blocked all debate. As Israel state radio and television correspondent Yaron Dekel noted on Sunday, the media injected itself as an actor in this campaign in a manner unprecedented in Israeli electoral history.
Indeed, many observers have charged that Channel 2 and Yediot Aharonot (which both enjoy monopoly shares of their respective markets) destroyed the Likud and created Kadima by demonizing the Likud Central Committee and Likud opponents of Sharon's expulsion and retreat policy for two and a half years; and by manufacturing public pressure and backing for the establishment of Kadima for the past year and a half.
SO IF THE polls are correct and the Israeli electorate today elects Kadima to form the next government, what can one reasonably expect will happen?
First, Kadima will eventually collapse because it stands for nothing. Ideology is defined as a systematic way of interpreting the world. Kadima's members – who come from the messianic Left and the moderate Right – do not see the world in the same way. As a result, their merger is inherently unstable. In the absence o
f their charismatic leader, Sharon, around whom they coalesced, Kadima has no rationale for existing except its leaders' shared desire to rule. When its members' contradictory interests and interpretations of reality inevitably bring them into conflict with one another, Kadima will break apart.
Second, because Kadima's leaders have rallied around a policy that will endanger Israel, and because they are incapable of shielding the country from the consequences of their policy, as was the case with the leftist peace ideologues, eventually the public will be unable to deny their incompetence.
Today it is hard for the public to connect the holes in the ground left by Kassam rockets raining down on Ashkelon to the looming threats to the state as a whole. The same will not be the case when rockets rain down on Kfar Saba, Jerusalem and Netanya.
Only after Kadima is brought down by its inherent contradictions and incompetence will Israel be able to address the forces that enabled its rise to prominence. When this happens, two reforms must be enacted. First, the elections law must be amended. Freedom is not enhanced when speech is restricted. Political parties must be allowed to pay for access to the public. By the same token, the centralized media must be decentralized and deregulated. State control over broadcast content and the number of media outlets must be transferred to market forces.
The campaign that concludes today owes its nature to the erosion of the organs of Israeli democracy, an erosion that has continued unabated for the past decade and a half. Although it must not be forgotten that Israeli opinion polls are chronically incorrect, if Kadima does win, only after the pathologies that have corrupted our politics are played out will we be able to take the steps necessary to protect ourselves from their inevitable consequences.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.