Democracy or banana republic?

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Surrounded by neighbors committed to our destruction and standing in the front line of the global war against terror, Israelis can rightly take pride in being the only democratic state in the region. However, recent political developments do raise serious questions.

A genuine democracy does not start and end with elections. It requires government to behave in a transparent and responsible manner; to maintain a system of checks and balances, and for decisions to be endorsed by a cabinet and ratified by parliament.

Alas, in recent years the Israeli cabinet has become irrelevant, and of late prime ministers have been treating the country as though it were their personal fiefdom. That three such prime ministers were former generals undoubtedly contributed to their authoritarian approach toward notions of teamwork and collective responsibility.

The rot set in with the Oslo Accords. Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister on a tough anti-PLO platform. Yet he resurrected Yasser Arafat, who had been exiled in Tunis on the verge of political extinction. To obtain a parliamentary majority for this radical policy change, Rabin virtually bribed an opposition MK, who was recently indicted as a drug peddler.

The best one can say about Rabin’s maneuver was that it was implemented with cabinet approval.
Ehud Barak was elected on a hawkish platform, but then stunned the nation by offering Arafat 97 percent of the West Bank and agreeing to divide Jerusalem. He initiated this on his own authority, having sidelined his cabinet. His chaotic term of office culminated in the marginalization of Labor and the election of Ariel Sharon.

Following a fractious unity government, which soon collapsed, new elections returned Sharon with a landslide victory. His adversary, Amnon Mitzna of Labor, was vanquished at the polls because Israelis rejected his policy of unilateral disengagement, a virtual mirror image of what we face today.

Sharon’s coalition was stable for a time, the Likud assuming the centrist role and reflecting the genuine aspirations of the Israeli mainstream in favor of separation from the Palestinians as long as this was not perceived as a reward for terror and was based on reciprocity.

From the outset, Sharon made vague statements about a need for “painful sacrifices” which found resonance with most Israelis. But other than his son Omri and his lawyer and bureau chief Dov Weisglass, nobody including his own senior ministers seemed to have the slightest notion what Sharon had in mind.

The first hint surfaced when he made a contentious reference to the “occupation.” Subsequently his deputy Ehud Olmert followed with a call for unilateral withdrawals from Gaza and the West Bank.

Initially Sharon refused to discuss or elaborate his policy with his own cabinet colleagues. But before consulting those who share with him the collective responsibility for the government of the country, he did talk to Shimon Peres, President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah, and President George W. Bush.

With his party colleagues still baying for consultations, Sharon placated them by agreeing to a referendum among Likud Party members and provided a solemn undertaking to abide by the verdict. He then sent Weisglass to Washington, where he succeeded in extracting an extraordinarily positive statement from President Bush on final borders and refugees. That provided him with a misplaced feeling of confidence that he would carry the day at the referendum.

It is axiomatic in a democratic body that if a referendum is held and a proposal is rejected, the leadership must pause and review. That applies even more so when the prime minister and party leader has publicly pledged to uphold the outcome of a ballot.

YET AFTER the Likud referendum debacle, Ariel Sharon, in hubris, declared in a Napoleonic manner that those “with narrow personal political motivations” had hijacked the referendum. He insisted that he would carry on and implement what he defined as the national interest. He even had the effrontery to condemn as “rebels” those supporting the views of his own constituency.

He then tried to bludgeon his cabinet into rejecting the verdict of their own party. When that failed, he took the drastic step of creating an artificial majority by crudely dismissing coalition ministers who opposed his views.

A prime minister has the right to dismiss ministers who violate the principle of collective leadership, but this cannot apply before a decision or policy has even been determined.

A prime minister using this approach would be able to arbitrarily disregard votes, majorities, procedures, and propriety whenever he was inclined to decide that “the national interest is at stake.” It would be unacceptable in any mature democracy.

Sharon justified his behavior by brazenly insisting that “the public elected me to decide.” This is outrageous because he was elected on a platform which rejected precisely his current policy.

Indeed, were Sharon to have employed such quasi-dictatorial tactics in promoting a right-wing agenda, the media would have been in uproar, and there would undoubtedly have been frenzied calls for his impeachment.

A democracy must operate within a framework in which decisions are determined through an agreed process. The leader must consult and dialogue with his cabinet, and ministers are entitled to disagree with him until a policy is adopted.
Decisions must be preceded by careful planning.

Important issues should be announced in major Knesset addresses or state of the nation messages, not by impulsive responses to journalists.
The public must also be involved. The leader cannot go into seclusion. He is obliged to communicate crucial policy changes directly to the people and give them an opportunity to question and challenge aspects of his policy.

As the former champion of the settlers, Sharon also has a special obligation to talk directly to them. He of all people should appreciate how obscene it is that people about to be dispossessed from communities they created with the blessings of former governments are vilified.

Irrespective of political affiliation, the people of Israel must reject any suggestion that the end can justify dubious means.

They must insist that their prime minister stop acting as a law unto himself. Besides, given majority support, Sharon could certainly achieve his political objectives within the framework of democratic procedures and without marginalizing the Likud.

Setting aside the actual wrenching debate about unilateral disengagement, there are serious grounds for concern that if democratic conventions continue to be trampled, Israel could drift from being a unique democracy into being a banana republic.

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