Although it's easy to write off the ideological integrity of a party whose leaders include both Shimon Peres and Tsachi Hanegbi -- along with about everyone in between -- Kadima happens to be the real thing.
That conclusion was firmly ratified this week by voters in Israeli, who chose Kadima, and its leader, Ehud Olmert, to head the next government.
Mind you, I didn't vote for Kadima; I voted for Labor because Labor has two important principles that Kadima doesn't -- a determination to reverse the spread of poverty and inequality, and a basic respect for the rights of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. But I admit -- if it didn't seem certain that Kadima would win Tuesday's election, if instead it was in a tight race against Labor, I think I probably would have voted for Kadima.
The party has serious faults, but on the big issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ideological path carved out by its founding father, Ariel Sharon, is both original and, so far, pretty damn successful. Unlike other centrist parties of the last generation, Kadima offers a genuinely new direction -- not for solving the conflict, certainly, but at least for neutralizing it. The party sets out a plausible, promising direction that is fundamentally different from the ones offered by Likud and Labor.
What's more, the experience of Israelis over the last generation has led most of them toward Kadima's direction, even before the party was founded.
This is what makes it an authentic ruling party; Kadima did not win the election by default -- because Labor and Likud had too many negatives -- but because it genuinely reflects the political evolution Israelis have gone through over the last generation.
In the last two decades, most Israelis have arrived at two conclusions: 1) territory and security are separate issues, and 2) the Palestinians are politically dysfunctional; not only can't they be trusted to keep a peace agreement, they can't be coerced into keeping one, either.
Kadima's ideology is based on both these conclusions, while neither Likud nor Labor has reached either one.
This evolution in Israeli political thinking began with the first intifada in 1987, continued through the Oslo accord, and reached its current stage in the second intifada
In the first intifada, Likud's ideology -- that Israel's security required the occupation of the entire West Bank and Gaza -- was proved false. Instead, the occupation provoked the Palestinians to challenge Israelis' security as never before. The "not one inch" ideology suddenly became marginal as most people realized that Israel had to part with a great deal of occupied territory -- for its own sake.
Then, with the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit and outbreak of the second intifada, Israelis saw that the left's ideology -- that giving up occupied territory would bring them security -- wasn't true, either. Later they learned that Abu Mazen, a moderate, reasonable Palestinian leader who genuinely seemed to want to make peace with Israel, was powerless against the Palestinians who didn't.
At this point, Israelis realized they were on their own. The only thing that worked against terror, finally, was relentless military force. They asked themselves what they wanted, and their answer was: a secure, Jewish, democratic state.
Likud couldn't get it for them, because while Likud was big on military force, it not only wanted to hold onto most of the occupied territory but it also wouldn't relinquish any until the Palestinians gave Israelis security, which the Palestinians wouldn't/couldn't ever do.
Labor could not get them a secure, Jewish, democratic state, either, because while Labor was eager to part with most of the occupied territory, it wanted to do so in negotiations -- the Oslo recipe, a recipe for military restraint and, thus, rampant terror.
Then along came Sharon to cut the Gordian knot. He took the best part of Likud's ideology -- reliance on the military to ensure security -- and joined it to the best part of Labor's, which was rejection of the occupation as fatal to a Jewish, democratic state.
Furthermore, by declining to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and instead acting unilaterally, he left Israel free to: 1) take military steps against terror, and 2) determine the extent of territorial withdrawals. An agreement with the Palestinians would only tie Israel's hands on these two critical issues, as the Oslo process -- under both Labor and Likud governments -- proved.
And while many Israelis are reluctant to admit that the army's "midnight abandonment" of Lebanon in 2000 was successful, deep down I think they realize it, and see it as a model for ending occupation unilaterally and achieving security afterward by military deterrence.
Likewise, while many Israelis can't bring themselves to admit that the disengagement from Gaza is working, deep down I think they realize it is -- that nearly all of the Gazans' Kassam rockets are landing harmlessly, that the army is making the Gazans pay a terrific price, that the lives of the former Gush Katif settlers, as hard as they temporarily may be, are no longer in danger, nor are the lives of the soldiers who used to protect them.
Disengagement from Gaza still isn't a total success, but it is clearly a net success, and there is good reason to believe that as the army continues to wear the rocketeers down, Israelis living near Gaza will, before too long, be as secure as Israelis living near Lebanon have been for nearly six years.
The new Israeli center appears to have found the right direction, and Israelis are looking forward to following it into the West Bank. No doubt: Kadima is good for the Jews.
But it is not very good for the Arabs, even though it's much better for them than Likud could ever be. With Ehud Olmert in the lead, Kadima takes a disdainful attitude toward Palestinians. It is plotting Israel's new borders without any concern for what the Palestinians need for their independence, whether it's enough land, a seaport, an airport, groundwater or airspace. It has a plan to free Israel, but not the Palestinians. Neither has Kadima shown any real interest in Israeli Arabs.
This is a serious problem, but I'm afraid that here, again, Kadima is reflecting the political evolution of the Israeli mainstream. I don't know how long this ruling party is going to last, but I give it at least a few years -- at least until its new direction, "Sharon's path" as it's called, ends either in success or failure in the West Bank.