Monday, October 23, 2006

Who needs elections?

By Akiva Eldar

Thank God, or better yet, thank Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has an agenda. The convergence plan died along with unilateralism. The Palestinians, who elected Hamas, are no partners. Bashar Assad is not a candidate because of his refusal to cut off his ties with Iran, responding to Olmert's statement that as long as he is prime minister "the Golan will remain forever a part of the state of Israel." Amos Yaron, who is coordinating the recovery efforts in the Galilee, announced last week that this task is also coming to an end. What is missing now is for Iran to pull back at the last minute and accept the American compromise offer.

What kind of goods would the Olmert-Peretz government bring out from its strategic emergency stores if that happens? More raids into the Gaza Strip? More assassinations of Palestinian militants? A fence against missiles? For a fighting agenda of this sort, the Israeli public does not need Kadima or the Labor Party, which failed in the second Lebanon war. Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman (perhaps with the help of Shaul Mofaz, who will once more find himself in the ranks of Likud) are a much better match with a chief of staff who only feels a small bump on the wing when he drops a hundred kilos of explosives on a house. Then-prime minister Netanyahu was making use of the Iranian threat at a time when then-Jerusalem mayor Olmert was still busy building mikvehs [Jewish ritual purification baths].

Netanyahu argued that the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip will be interpreted by Hamas as a reward, many months before Olmert canceled the unilateral pullout plan from the West Bank for the same reason. Netanyahu also says that if the Palestinians change regime and cease terrorist activity, he will not be opposed to a Palestinian state with extensive powers. As for the Golan Heights, with all due respect to Olmert's declarations of loyalty, the opponents of a withdrawal from the Golan will feel a lot more secure if Avigdor Lieberman were defense minister in a Netanyahu government, than with Amir Peretz in the defense chair in the Olmert government.

When the ruling parties relinquish their agendas, it should come as no wonder that their rivals on the right are getting ready to take over. The head of the Labor faction, Ephraim Sneh, is recommending a new blend, comprising Labor, Kadima and the Pensioners' Party. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik of Kadima, and formerly of Labor, went a step further and called for an "emergency government" that includes Netanyahu. All that is left to do is convince Lieberman to respond to Olmert's wooing, and at the same time push forward the idea of MK Avshalom Vilan of Meretz-Yahad, to merge the leftist party with Labor. How warm and pleasant it will then be around the government table.

America's Democratic Party learned the hard way that the cost of conceding basic principles and values in favor of a turn to the right and ephemeral popular views is high. George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley who also heads the Democratic-affiliated think tank, the Rockridge Institute, attributes the Republican's victories to the Democrats' failure to offer the public a platform of values that can compete with the family values and emotions of patriotism espoused by the conservatives. The fact that George Bush is affiliated with the extreme wing of the right did not prevent the American center from electing him and Arnold Schwartzenegger, even though they did not move to the center or soften their ideology.

The left in Israel managed to influence the daily agenda when it presented clear positions, and was pushed to the sidelines every time it sought to appeal to the public. This is what happened during the first weeks of the second Lebanon war, when the leadership of Meretz-Yahad stood to the right of the government and even denounced its faction leader, Zahava Gal-On, who was the only one who said that the Lebanese proposal for a cease-fire should be accepted. The result: since the war proved not to have been a success story, the right appears to be the only alternative to a government that has failed.

The new fashion, to take advantage of "existential" fears to rally behind a common, hollow, "patriotic" denominator, while distorting principles and breaking down party lines, threatens democracy more than any system of governance. If everyone is the same, who needs elections?


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