A lethal combination
Democracy is capable of overcoming all hardships: wars, economic crises, unemployment and distress. But there is one obstacle that it will not overcome for long: the loss of its citizens' confidence.
Democracy is capable of overcoming all hardships: wars, economic crises, unemployment and distress. But there is one obstacle that it will not overcome for long: the loss of its citizens' confidence. The source of the crisis in which Israeli society now finds itself is not really the failure in the Lebanon war, but government leaders' refusal to admit that the defeat was their own handiwork. It is not the regime that is to blame, but the petty people into whose hands the reins of government have fallen.
Since the establishment of the state, the parliamentary regime has withstood every test and challenge it faced, including difficult wars. Parliamentary democracy is very far from perfect, but, unlike demagoguery of the Olmert-Lieberman school, it is not responsible for the erosion of confidence in the government.
The real reason for the erosion of confidence is not the system of government, but the bankruptcy of the political elite. In order to remove the stain of failure from themselves, many members of this government, and Ehud Olmert first and foremost, are willing to disrupt the necessary checks and balances among the different branches of government, and thus to undermine the foundations of Israeli democracy and call individual freedoms and rights into question to a degree that is intolerable in a free society. And let us not forget: Israel is not America.
Because it betrayed all its promises, from the convergence plan to repairing society, and thus finds itself in serious distress, the governmental elite is now calling for help from the most dangerous politician we have ever had in Israel. Rehavam Ze'evi was also a racist whose "legacy" is a disgrace to Israeli society, but he did not have the benefit of a power base such as the one that Avigdor Lieberman has consolidated. This base does not consist only of the Russian-speaking community; Lieberman also has the ability, through the power of xenophobia and by slinging mud at the Knesset and the Supreme Court, to mobilize the frustrations of the lower middle class. In the past, this role was reserved for the Likud, but Benjamin Netanyahu's movement today represents the interests of the bourgeoisie, rather than those of the weaker sectors. Lieberman caught this wave even before the war, but now he is exploiting his success in order to fill the vacuum that has been created by the center's moral collapse.
And indeed, by turning to Lieberman, Olmert is declaring that he does not have the strength to lead the country on his own, while Defense Minister Amir Peretz, for his part, is admitting that he does not have the political and emotional strength to fight back. This is a process that typically occurs among a defeated elite: In order to save itself, it tends to call in the bully for assistance. Olmert and Peretz know they have lost the public's confidence; they know that the recent Lebanon war, which was begun and conducted irresponsibly, was a major strategic failure. But government leaders refuse to recognize their responsibility and are breaking all the records for that familiar public cynicism and corruption.
European history has taught us that cooperation between a defeated conservative politician and a right-wing extremist politician with no restraints and a dictatorial temperament can be lethal. In this way, the fastest gun in the East is establishing himself in the heart of the Israeli consensus and lending legitimacy to viewpoints that in the Western world, very few members of the extreme right would dare to voice. He also knows that the loss of confidence in the political elite constitutes a golden opportunity for undermining the regime itself: Lieberman is entering the government not as a collaborator, but as a reformer and legislator who is changing long-standing practices.
We always knew that Olmert was a cynic, but few people expected him to behave so irresponsibly, particularly when Israel is entering one of the most dangerous periods it has ever known. The United States has frequently abandoned its friends without batting an eyelash, and its anticipated flight from Iraq will create a new situation in the regional and international arenas. More than ever before, we will have need for imagination, vision, judgment, responsibility and mature leadership. In light of that, and given the present circumstances, the move initiated by the disintegrating political elite headed by Olmert is no less than a moral and political crime.