Politics & Policy

Democracy in Israel

With Sharon's health crisis, no political debacle.

As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon struggles for his life, several commentators have already declared that his health crisis will throw the Israeli political system into turmoil. On the eve of national elections that Sharon and his new centrist Kadima party were expected to win, the prime minister’s stroke appears to have reshuffled all the cards.

At first glance, this argument seems sensible. It is not only the fact that the predicted Kadima victory is now questionable, but it is also the fact that Sharon’s stroke leaves the Israeli political system in the worst leadership crisis it has ever known. Moreover, Sharon’s exit from political life could bring to a halt Israel’s attempt to establish its final boarders and disengage from the Palestinian authority.

But a closer look at the Israeli situation reveals a different reality. Sharon’s ailment might not have thrown Israeli politics into turmoil, but could have created an opportunity to end the turmoil that was created earlier by the prime minister’s decision to carry out a big bang in Israeli politics, i.e. leave his own Likud party and form Kadima. It might even return Israeli politics into a state of normalcy where traditional party politics can reemerge in Israel.

Kadima is an anomaly in Israeli politics that has been dominated by parties established prior to the creation of the state. It is a party completely formed and defined around the personality of its leader. It was expected to win the upcoming March elections even without the necessary party institutions, governing bodies, or primary elections which characterize democratic politics and all political parties in Israel. Sharon’s immense popularity gave his new party–a hodgepodge of political figures from both the left and the right–a real chance of winning elections even without following the standard rules of the game. But after his departure from the political arena, this party faces a real crisis. The deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Kadima has been given the authority of the prime minister until the elections, but it is not clear yet who will be elected as the party’s next leader. Since Kadima lacks the any sort of protocol to hold primary elections, it is not clear in which manner the party will elect it new leader. Kadima in other words, is hardly a political party at all. It future depends on its ability to become one without Sharon’s leadership.

Kadima’s creation threw the Israeli political system into turmoil in one more sense. With the creation of Kadima, the Israeli political system had lost a cornerstone of democracy: an effective opposition to the party in power. Sharon’s popularity was so immense and his big-bang move was so bold that both Likud and Labor lost their footing. Labor, under the leadership of workers’ Amir Peretz, was weakened by years of ineffective leadership and embarked on an extreme socialist agenda. Likud, having now lost its leader to Kadima, became a marginalized extreme-right-wing party that is struggling to gain legitimacy in the eyes of mainstream Israelis. With the right still struggling to recover from Sharon’s Gaza pullout (which the vast majority of the party opposed) and Labor’s continuous search for a broad and popular political agenda, Sharon’s Kadima faced no real challengers. Despite the popularity of Sharon’s centrist positions, the emergence of Kadima would have chipped away at Israeli democracy.

After Sharon’s stroke, Kadima’s future is in question. Initial polls already show that without Sharon, the party loses much of its popularity. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether its key members will stay with Kadima or return to Likud or Labor, which they deserted. If Kadima loses its steam, then Israel can return to politics as usual and the turmoil created by Kadima’s establishment will be diminished. Political parties rather than personality politics will go back to dominating the Israeli political arena. With that, regardless of who is elected next, one can expect to see the return of real opposition politics.

The tragedy of Sharon’s deteriorating health is having an immense effect on the Israeli political system. In both health and sickness, Sharon has been single-handedly able to determine the course of Israeli politics. His new party, however, is a different story. If it is but a passing episode in Israeli history remains to be seen.

Meyrav Wurmser is the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.

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