OPINION / For the sake of peace, Labor and Kadima must merge
Merger would bolster two-state solution supporters, keep Israel from clashing with Obama government.
The requisite conclusion drawn from the election results is that Kadima and Labor need to merge and act as a joint faction in the 18th Knesset. Such a merger has a double logic: It would place a bloc of 40 MKs at the center of the political system, effectively becoming the central axis in any coalition constellation. It would also restore some stability to the system, currently divided among midsize parties.
There is no ideological difference between Labor and Kadima that could constitute an immovable obstacle to the parties' merger. Both combine political moderation with security-minded toughness, and their participation in the Olmert government was characterized by agreement on most of the fundamental issues. The crises stemmed from a personal dispute between Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, not from differences of opinion.
A merger would strengthen the camp that supports a division of the land and a peace deal with Syria, in contrast with the right wing, which opposes any compromise or withdrawal. As the largest parliamentary faction, the merged party would be the one to form the next government. Even if it needs right-wing parties in the coalition, it would still be a center-left government - and this is how Israel would be viewed by the rest of the world. A merger would keep the right wing from expanding the settlements, would save Israel from clashing with the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, and would do away with the racist ideas of Avigdor Lieberman.
Kadima proved during this campaign that it is not the heir of Shinui and its predecessor, popularly known by its Hebrew acronym Dash, which burned bright for a moment and then faded. Ehud Barak's hope that Kadima would crumble and disappear has not been realized. Kadima maintained its position as the leading party of the center-left camp. With Tzipi Livni at its helm, Kadima has managed to free itself of Olmert's unpopularity and do well at the polls. Barak-led Labor, by contrast, has continued to head downhill, to the point where there is no reason for the party's separate existence. But the danger to Kadima's future, if it loses power, has yet to pass. A merged party would alleviate concerns that Kadima MKs will return to Likud and strengthen the right-wing bloc.
The establishment of a large bloc in the center of the political spectrum will also help resolve the stability problem, which has intensified with the collapse of the large parties. Even before the electoral results were announced, there were calls for a change in the system of government, to assure that the government will be able to function and will not be in constant danger of collapse. One can argue over whether the American presidential system is suitable for Israel, but in any case, it will be a theoretical debate. It is almost impossible to pass government reforms in the Knesset because of the small parties' opposition, and Israel's experience with directly electing the prime minister shows it is difficult to predict the ramifications of such change. A large party built around a political concept could restore to the political system some of the stability it has lost over the past decade - without the need to change the system of government or cope with complex legislative changes.
One can make several arguments against a Labor-Kadima merger, such as that it distorts the decision of the voters, who thought they were choosing between two separate parties. But it wouldn't be the first merger in the history of Israeli politics, and would be no less legitimate than its predecessors. One could also argue that not all Labor MKs would want to merge with Kadima, whose founders came from Likud. The simple answer is that whoever doesn't want to participate in the merger, in an effort to preserve the Labor Party's ideological purity, will be able to switch to Meretz and strengthen the left. That, too, has precedent (witness Yossi Sarid or Yossi Beilin).
Another argument is that party mergers lead to a distortion of positions and a tilt to the center, at the price of paralyzing the political process. That may have been true in the days of Golda Meir. But it's doubtful whether it's true in 2009, when the formula for deals with Syria and the Palestinians is well-known, and when the election results require the establishment of a unity government.
But the main issue that could hinder a merger between Labor and Kadima is the aspirations of the politicians. As long as they believe that keeping each party separate will get them more cabinet portfolios and more important jobs, they will refuse to cooperate as a single political entity.
As long as Labor believes Kadima is liable to crumble, it would rather close a deal with Benjamin Netanyahu against their mutual rival. It's doubtful that will be good for the Labor Party, and it's clear it will be bad for the country. Israel needs a large center-left party.