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A wicked caricature once depicted Ehud Olmert as a bespectacled snake. The depiction was unfair because Olmert's public behavior lacks the evil, deadly quality that humans attribute to the snake; his behavior is more reminiscent of a wasp sting. Nevertheless, the snake image is relevant to Olmert's political situation today: His party, Kadima, is reminiscent of a reptile whose head is moving even as its body threatens to separate from it or even completely disappear.

Kadima was established by Ariel Sharon, not by Olmert. It was originally a one-man party, and that one man shaped its image as he pleased. The politicians who joined the party accepted its leader's authority. Some of the people who voted for it did so out of loyalty to Sharon and the political path he forged, and others did so because the party filled a void in the public's map of expectations. Therefore, even after Sharon fell into a coma, his list managed to get into the Knesset and win 29 seats, becoming the largest party there.

But Kadima is not a governing party in any familiar sense: It has no traditions, it has no deeply-rooted organizational structure and it has no presence in the Israeli experience or in Israel's history. It is a bubble party that arose from improvisation and is by definition transient. It united politicians from opposite ends of the spectrum, some of them nimble opportunists who, a moment before jumping on the bandwagon, were still considering joining rival parties.

Furthermore, in the two years of its existence, Kadima has not managed to leave its mark in the public sphere. The party is not perceived as a solid political organization with an agenda and a worldview. It seems more like a hasty assemblage of hacks who were gathered from far-flung places and whose sole interest is improving their own standing. The composition of its Knesset faction is unimpressive, and the same is true of some of its representatives in the cabinet.

Thus when Olmert insists now on extending his term as long as possible, citing as his reason his desire to ensure Kadima's status as the governing party, he sounds more hollow than ever. Not only does Kadima's low specific gravity belie his explanation, but so do the circumstances in which it operates and the basic reasons behind its creation.

Kadima is an expression of long-term processes that are breaking down the party system. Its formation reflected a betrayal in principle of the mother party from which it was spun off (Likud), just as it reflected the extreme disharmony between its leader (Sharon) and his party's institutions (the Likud Central Committee). In other words, Kadima is further proof that the traditional party framework is not fulfilling its role: It is not managing to keep the loyalty of its constituents, and its elected representatives are not maintaining a defined political identity. Kadima was a chance occurrence - and therefore, neither it nor the politicians who jumped aboard are obligated to follow any particular course.

This basic situation generates ridiculous practices such as a rapid enrollment of party members, who create the appearance of a distinct constituency but in practice are nothing more than a random, or even fictitious, group of voters who were gathered in varied and unusual ways after a strenuous effort by dubious party hacks.

Nor is Kadima alone: The Pensioners Party is another blatant illustration of the breakdown of the party system. Even the veteran parties, like Likud and Labor, are suffering from a similar syndrome (after all, Kadima was built on their weakness).

It is a vicious cycle: The parties practice a repellent form of politics, and in so doing destroy people's confidence in them. That leads to a significant reduction in the number of people who vote in Knesset elections, which further accelerates the failed management of both the parties themselves and the interactions among them. And that causes their image to deteriorate even further in the public's eyes. And so on and so on.

Kadima was the focus of the electoral expectations of the Israeli center, which is searching for a party that is pragmatic on diplomatic issues and liberal on social and economic issues. Even though most of its power came from Labor and Likud voters (as well as refugees from Shinui), its public status is wobbly. A study included in a book just published by the Israel Democracy Institute ("The Elections in Israel 2006," edited by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir), confirms that Kadima faces a real threat of following in the footsteps of other influential center parties such as Dash and Shinui, which rose to prominence suddenly but then disappeared after one or two terms.