September 23, 2019

If you really must know what’s going to happen in Kadima

The Kadima Party will be electing its leader this coming Tuesday, and while tension levels are high and all eyes are on the two candidates – former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz – one has to remember that as things stand now Kadima is no more than one midsize party among many. Recent polls give Kadima 10-16 mandates (it currently has 28). That’s not far ahead or behind three to four parties: Labor, Israel Beitenu, Yair Lapid’s party, and Shas. The battle in Kadima is more intriguing than other such battles because Kadima, still, is the only party from which a challenger to Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule might emerge.

Having failed all previous attempts at accurately forecasting the outcome of primary elections in major parties, all responsible Israeli pollsters have ceased conducting such polls. Senior pollster (and Rosner’s Domain chief magician) Prof. Camil Fuchs has dedicated a long chapter of a book he published last year (in Hebrew) to Kadima primaries polls. “Traumatic elections”, he calls the Kadima primaries. The pollsters accurately identified the winner, Livni, but were far off when it came to the actual numbers. Fuchs predicted (based on phone survey on election day) a 12% victory for Livni. It was eventually a less than 1% victory. Fuchs invested a lot of effort in post-election analysis and came up with the following conclusions: Not many voters actually lied to pollsters (as some have suspected), but Mofaz voters tended not to respond to surveys.

Moving into election day with no polls to rely on feels somewhat odd, but is also refreshing. This time, the voters would have to make up their minds without prior knowledge on the state of the race. They’d have to decide which of the two candidates is better. And this means making up ones mind on three questions:

  1. Do I want the better leader, or the leader with a better chance for success?
  2. Which of the two is the better leader?
  3. Which of the two has better chances of leading Kadima to success?

Even on the third question – presumably the one which general polls should be able to answer – there’s no clear answer. Two weeks ago, two polls were published simultaneously by two newspapers, Maariv and Haaretz. In the Maariv poll, Kadima got more mandates with Livni at the helm (16) than with Mofaz (14). In Haaretz, it was the other way around: Kadima with Livni at the helm would get 10 mandates, but with Mofaz it would get 12 mandates.

But there are some lingering assumptions shared by most observers of the race:

  1. Mofaz has more organizational fire power, and most senior Kadima politicians believe he will win. Many such politicians have joined him in recent weeks, including rival Avi Dichter, the race’s former third wheel. If you believe politicians have the best skill to identify a winner – Mofaz is probably ahead in this race.
  2. Traditional Kadima voters prefer Livni and will have hard time voting for General Mofaz. The question, though, is whether these voters will be going to the polls on Tuesday. Many of them, as polls show, have already abandoned Kadima and can’t be called “voters”.
  3. Mofaz and Livni can’t work together. And they will not. The loser is going to have to leave. True, politicians have proved in the past that personal rivalries can be overcome, but people close to Livni doubt very much her ability or desire to belong to a Kadima headed by Mofaz.
  4. If Kadima doesn’t find a way to reemerge as the main opposition party, the next election will be its swan song. Kadima was formed to be a ruling party, and has very little ideology through which to enhance support and ignite enthusiasm. The party is only attractive if it still has a real chance of power. If not, other parties can do better job of harassing Netanyahu’s coalition from the sidelines.

A reason to think Mofaz is going to win it and compete against Netanyahu: He was the underdog candidate for many of the previous jobs he got.

A reason to think Livni can pull it off again and compete with Netanyahu: The 2008 truism – Bibi or Tzipi – still rings true for many.

A reason not to care: No poll thus far gives any candidate other than Netanyahu any chance of forming the next Israeli coalition, and besides, there is not yet a date for Israeli general elections.