Ariel Sharon overturned Israel politics on Nov. 21 when he announced his departure from the very Likud Party he had helped establish 32 years earlier.
The next week saw an avalanche of polling, with the results pointing consistently to a resounding success for Sharon's new party, called Kadima ("Forward"). For example, three surveys collected by IMRA find Kadima winning between 32 and 34 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, followed by Labor with about 26 and Likud with a miserable 13. No other party scores even 10.
But how long will the new party last and how deep will its impact be?
The best guide to assessing the impact of Kadima is by looking at the historical record of comparable parties in Israeli politics. Fortunately, Bernard Susser and Giora Goldberg provide just such an analysis in a well researched, pungently titled, and beautifully timed article, "Escapist Parties in Israeli Politics," in the current issue of Israel Affairs, edited by Efraim Karsh.
The authors note that "escapist political parties … have been an almost permanent fixture of Israeli political life over the past 40 years." Calling Kadima escapist may sound insulting, but Sharon's new party closely fits Susser and Goldberg's use of this term. Actually, they distinguish between two types of escapist parties, "anomic" and "new start." The former interests us little here, being directed at "alienated, politically adrift voters with little investment in the political system" and including over the years such colorful but forgettable personal parties as those of Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, Pnina Rosenblum, and Rabbi Yitchak Kadourie, not to speak of the surreal Green Leaf (i.e., marijuana) Party of recent elections.
In contrast, "new start" parties have played a much larger role and include Dash, Centre, Yisrael Acheret, Shinui, and Ha'olam Hazeh. (Bafflingly, Susser and Goldberg also include Shas in this category.) Surface differences aside, these organizations share many commonalities in their make-up and fate.
To begin with, these express "a powerful urge to cut through the maze of difficulties [surrounding Israel] with gratifyingly sharp and decisive answers" and arise because the Israeli electorate gets demoralized "when complex issues continuously resist solution." Accordingly, they are not "the products of long and slow political gestation. They are much more likely to burst onto the political scene abruptly and dramatically."
In outlook, new-start parties share much in common:
They tend to be ideologically unfocused. It is difficult to use conventional categories like left and right, dove and hawk, socialist and capitalist, establishment or anti-establishment to describe them. Their answers to political dilemmas tend to be sensational, uncomplicated and ethically charged. They promise quick results and dramatic successes. They display a low threshold for political ambiguities. … Escapist parties will normally claim to belong to the political "centre," even if the party's leadership is closer to one or the other of the ideological poles.
This outlook means they tend to make the same sort of pitch to voters: "Claiming to represent some underlying national consensus, to be the voice of a silent majority, they make every effort to appeal to as broad and varied an electorate as possible." They also have a similar sort of appeal: "They are particularly adept at tapping into, and claiming to represent, the frustrations of an exasperated electorate. … escapist parties tend to emphasize personal over substantive concerns. They highlight their own impeccable credentials and their leadership skills rather than the worldviews they champion."
This means the leadership and structure also share certain qualities:
The leadership of these escapist parties is usually a strikingly mixed bag of individuals with little ideological coherence. They tend to be drawn, at times quite indiscriminately, from all corners of the ideological spectrum. … they are parties with a national leadership but without grassroots organizations or developed local representation.
And then, this kicker: "The life expectancy of escapist parties tends to be quite short. They often do not last more than a term or two before disappearing."
The Susser-Goldberg model does not perfectly fit the Sharon party, for the new-start parties they describe were founded by political outsiders from the worlds of business, the press, or the academy who, fed up with the status quo, jumped into the political arena – hardly the same as a sitting prime minister. But even in this regard, one near-precedent exists, that of David Ben-Gurion and his Rafi Party, founded when he was out of office and lasting only briefly. In all, the fit is a good one. As was the case with other new-start parties, it urgently and arrogantly tries to transcend the deep left-right divide of Israeli politics and offer something both fresh and synthetic.
Therein lies its escapist nature and the reason why I predict that Sharon's Kadima Party will (1) fall about as abruptly as it has arisen and (2) leave behind a meager legacy.
Nov. 28, 2005 update: For others' opinions on this topic as well as updates on Kadima's predictable disappearance, see my weblog entry, "Assessing Kadima."
Jan. 5, 2006 update: I return to this argument in the aftermath of Ariel Sharon's health problems at "[After Sharon:] Israeli Politics Will Revert to Its Past."