Olmert's Test

Olmert must keep the determination of Kadima Knesset list in his own hands and assume the kind of leadership necessary to keep the party from disappearing as quickly as the last new centrist party did in 1999.

Between January and March 1999, the Center Party's standing in the polls deteriorated from around 20 seats to 14. During those two months, the four heads of the new party competed for the top slot, and afterward fought over the makeup of the party's Knesset list. Pollsters gave the party on the eve of the elections fewer than 10 seats, and it wound up getting six.

Kadima and Ehud Olmert ought to draw a lesson from the Center Party's conduct.

In retrospect, it is correct to state that the Center Party's first mistake was placing Yitzhak Mordechai at its head. That decision was made by its four founders (Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Dan Meridor, Roni Milo and Mordechai) because a decisive poll had (ostensibly) shown him with an 0.8 percent advantage over Lipkin-Shahak in a race for prime minister against Benjamin Netanyahu. The other pretenders to the throne gave in. Mordechai barely had time to warm his seat before the party's public standing began to erode. The main reason for this was the inability of its four leaders to reach agreement on the party's Knesset slate.

The disputes among them, which stemmed from each wanting to promote his loyalists, leaked out to the media, and it presented the Center Party as a leaderless political body incapable of making decisions. The public essentially said to the partys' heads: By what authority do you presume to run the affairs of the country if you don't present a leader who can impose his will on his colleagues?

A similar danger lies in wait for Kadima. It too is currently without a leader of indisputable authority. In its beehive, too, there are well-known public figures, but they are competing with each other without any clear internal hierarchy. It too is a political entity that lacks institutions and procedures; it too is on the verge of determining its roster of Knesset candidates. But there is seemingly one important difference between Kadima and the Center Party - it wasn't created out of thin air, but rather formed by the split in Likud, and it is running in the elections from the position of a ruling party.

That is indeed an advantage, but its meaning is limited: the answer to the question of which constitutes the ruling party - the Likud splinter that formed Kadima or the splinter that remained in the mother party - is not self-evident, particularly since Ariel Sharon's departure from the public stage. Furthermore, the Center Party also had at its core a bunch of well-known politicians who had dropped out of other parties (Likud, Labor, Gesher, the Third Way), who were joined by well-known public figures who supposedly were electoral magnets.

Even if we accept the assumption that Kadima's starting point is much better than was the Center Party's, it can still expect to face major difficulties it would have been spared had Ariel Sharon not fallen sick. The upcoming pitfall is the manner in which its Knesset slate will be decided. As far as is known, the candidates accepted Sharon's decree in this matter. He had intended to postpone the ranking of candidates until the last possible moment; that is, right before the list has to be submitted to the Central Elections Commission. That timing was chosen to prevent internal scampering, with its inherent ugliness, and grant the new party a harmonious appearance. Those who joined Kadima had good reason to go along with this: polls indicated that Sharon would form the next government and that the party would get 40 members into the Knesset.

Olmert is in a different situation: his leadership is not self-evident. Competition for a slot on the party's Knesset list (and for a government post) will grow fiercer now because its popularity is expected to go down in the coming weeks; and some of the candidates are claiming prearrangements with Sharon. Olmert's primary test will be his ability to keep the determination of the list's makeup in his own hands. If he opens the proceeding up to bargaining, he will expose Kadima to the affliction that shrank the Center Party and brought about its collapse.