Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “address to the nation” did little to lift the depressed mood of most Israelis. But short of a radical change of policy, such an outcome was predictable. Sharon has not been blessed with a Churchillian charisma capable of inspiring a nation with words.
Israelis are entitled to be depressed; the past 17 months have unquestionably been dreadful. However, despite the daily terrorist outrages, in purely strategic terms we are infinitely more secure than we were during the last months of the chaotic Barak government. Then, Israel’s demoralized leaders were making daily concessions without reciprocity to an enemy seeking an end to Jewish statehood, and there were grounds for fearing that Israel was indeed unraveling.
At least now it is clear that Israelis are not about to sell the family silver and hand over the keys of the country. Without minimizing each personal tragedy and realizing that any one of us or our loved ones could be victims of the next attack, for the time being we are still more likely to die in road accidents than by terror.
The political scene has also undergone a dramatic transformation. President George W. Bush’s uncompromising war against terror has resulted in a sea change in policy towards Israel. Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat cannot point to one achievement for his people since he reverted to terrorism. Many Palestinians are beginning to ask whether their self-inflicted pain and suffering has been in any way justified.
So why do we hear so much doom and gloom? Is it because, until recently, we were hypnotized by the “irreversible peace process?” Is it because after three generations of war, we have become weary and our determination to stand firm eroded? Is it because many young Israelis lack the Zionist passion of their predecessors and some have become infected by the cancer of post-Zionism?
No doubt many of these elements contribute to our present condition. But the main factor generating frustration and bitterness is, I believe, the vacuum created by the absence of leadership. It is as simple as that! This does not detract from the fact that Sharon has made a major contribution to stabilizing Israel this past year. He inherited a confused, shattered and totally divided country. His achievement in establishing a national-unity government has given us all breathing space, without which we may well have torn ourselves apart.
BUT NOW we must confront what is indeed evolving into an existential threat, and Sharon should do more than express pious hopes for unity. He must reassure Israelis that there is a strategy, and an end-game plan, even if he is unable to spell it out explicitly.
Paradoxically, today we share a remarkable consensus on the critical issues that face us. Unfortunately this is overshadowed by the frenzied sensationalist-seeking media which highlight the marginal extremists. This not only undermines morale, it also provides the international media with a feast of anti-Israeli material and deludes Palestinians into believing that if they maintain the killings, Israel will follow the Lebanese pattern and give up.
This is precisely where Sharon, as a wartime prime minister, must seize the reins of national leadership.
To do this there are various steps he must take:
* Call his cabinet to order and drum up public pressure to compel Peres and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben- Eliezer to work with him as a team rather than as a parallel government.
* Demand from the Knesset that the speaker be dismissed if he brazenly ignores the wishes of the parliamentary majority.
* Warn Israeli Arabs who incite against Israel that we are at war and that if they persist, they will be dealt with harshly under the law.
* Announce that the government will not tolerate a situation in which a small number of reserve officers try to operate as a trade union within the IDF.
* Stop insisting that Arafat and his PA are a protected species and immune to the ultimate penalty the IDF can inflict.
To implement this, he must first overcome his paranoia towards Binyamin Netanyahu – an inhibition that deters him from doing what is in the interests of the country. At such a crucial time personal political considerations should be inconsequential.
This change in policy might well, at first, create hysteria amongst the noisy minority which still mindlessly continues promoting the Oslo Accords. They will no doubt shriek fascism and threaten to tear the country apart. But this would be their last hurrah since the vast majority of Israelis would support and endorse a firm hand of leadership.
Sharon must inform all members of his government that if they are unwilling to abide by government policies, they must resign as is the normal procedure in democratic governments. Sharon should make it clear that despite a possible impact on his leadership, he would prefer to see the Knesset dissolved rather than allow the current anarchy to prevail. He would thus demonstrate that there are still leaders willing to promote the interests of the nation above their own political ambitions.
The writer is senior vice president of the World Jewish Congress.