What Remains of the Big Bang?

There is no argument about the political results of last summer's war: It destroyed the 'big bang,' which promised to redraw the map of Israel's political parties but ended in a whimper.

One can argue about whether the Second Lebanon War weakened Israel's regional status, which in the past rested on its deterrent image as a ruffian, or actually brought the country closer to an alliance with Arab regimes that fear Iran and created new opportunities for peace. However, there is no argument about the political results of last summer's war: It destroyed the 'big bang,' which promised to redraw the map of Israel's political parties but ended in a whimper.

The choice of Ehud Barak as chairman of the Labor Party and his entry into the government as defense minister returns Israel to the two-headed, two-party system. The race in the next elections will be between Likud and Labor, between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak. Kadima, the ?big bang? party, may survive as a secular kingmaker, but as last Friday?s Haaretz-Dialog poll showed, it will probably not be running the country beyond its current term. Its satellite party, the Pensioners, is expected to shrink to the point of disappearance.

More than anything else, the war is responsible for this change. The war destroyed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's image and removed the idea of a unilateral convergence in the West Bank, which was the centerpiece of Kadima's platform, from the public agenda. The war turned the Olmert government into a transition government preoccupied with survival tactics. It also returned Barak, who had previously been considered a political corpse, to the nation's leadership, due solely to the longing for someone security-oriented at the top and disappointment with the civilian government.

The immediate political benefit was reaped by Likud, which, after the split in its ranks and the establishment of Kadima, had looked like an ephemeral right-wing party. Now, Barak will try to postion Labor against Likud, perhaps aided by an infusion of ex-Kadima members after the elections.

The 'big bang' also failed for other reasons, first and foremost disappointment with the political culture that Kadima represents. The party that promised to rid the state of the corruption of the Likud Central Committee and to promote changes in the system of government failed to do either. Some of its leaders became embroiled in scandals and investigations that they brought with them from their days in Likud. The system's chronic ills were not healed. Ministers still leave their ministries after only a short time in office, which precludes long-term planning and policy. Handing out ministerial jobs is still the tried and true method for remaining in power.

Ironically, the reasons that led Ariel Sharon into the 'big bang' two years ago, with the encouragement of Haim Ramon and Olmert, are just as relevant now as they were then. Israel still needs a new eastern border to end the occupation of the West Bank and ease demographic concerns. The state also needs a more stable and functional political system, especially after the war exposed the limits of the old 'trust me' system.

Olmert showed that ruling from the center has important advantages: He is less vulnerable to ideological struggles and right-left conflicts than the old two-party system was. The criticism of Olmert revolves around his leadership, not his positions, and the opposition is having trouble firing up an apathetic public. The price that Olmert has paid is reduced motivation and ability to promote diplomatic processes and economic and administrative reforms, for fear that the coalition will collapse. Labor and Likud have both understood the message from the public, which brought Kadima to power at their expense, and are now trying to adjust themselves to the zeitgeist and move to the center. Labor put Barak, who presents himself as security-oriented and represses his past involvement in the peace process, at its head. Netanyahu is not abandoning either his ideology or the territories and the settlements, but he is focusing on assailing Iran, a noncontroversial issue.

Elections are decided by the floating voters of the center. The next elections will be won by whoever succeeds in attracting the most voters from the huge pool formerly affiliated with Kadima and the Pensioners, and, to a lesser extent, Yisrael Beiteinu, which was damaged by its entry into Olmert's government. These three parties currently have 47 seats, most of which will be up for grabs, and efforts to win their support will preoccupy the political system in the coming months. One interesting question is whether either Netanyahu or Barak will try to appropriate Kadima's unfulfilled promises as a means of reaching the voters' hearts.