A short while after he was elected to his first term as president of the United States, Ronald Reagan faced a serious challenge to his leadership: Air traffic controllers declared a strike and threatened to seriously disrupt daily life. The negotiating strength of the air traffic controllers in America was parallel to the hold employees of the Israel Electric Corporation have on the flow of electricity. Unlike Israel's prime ministers, the new American president picked up the gauntlet: Those who refused to go back to work were fired and replaced by younger air traffic controllers, with less experience, who were available in the labor market.
It was a daring gamble that was highly successful and reflected on Reagan's tenure for years. The president, a former Hollywood actor, whose election had been met with ridicule in certain American quarters (and also abroad), gained the image of a leader, a decisive man who knows where he is headed, and as someone with whom adversaries should treat carefully.
When we look at the way the current Israeli leadership deals with the crises that come before it, it is impossible not to wish for a leader made of the same stuff as Reagan, even when his weaknesses, and the retrospective criticisms of his presidency, are taken into account. The nostalgia for someone like Reagan, unsophisticated as such a feeling may be, stems from the realization that these days there is no king in Israel.
When Ehud Barak, who has the right and is authorized to do so, seeks to limit the endless number of yeshiva students exempted from military service - he is forced to retreat following pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties. And when he, and with him the prime minister, try to meet their commitment to the American government and evacuate illegal outposts - they are forced to give up on their original intention and instead heed the dictates of the settlers' Yesha Council. And when Ehud Olmert seeks to maintain the freeze on settlement construction, including in the communities around Jerusalem, in order to meet his part in the effort to create conditions necessary for furthering negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas - he finds himself having to backtrack in order to appease the religious-nationalist camp and Shas.
These retreats should not be seen as legitimate political maneuvers. This is not routine behavior in the political arena, in which these are acceptable steps taken in order to ensure survival. The impression left by the government's present behavior is one of overwhelming weakness at the top against forceful groups who manage to squeeze the leadership and dictate the agenda in crucial areas. The issues at hand are not the streamlining of the way ports are run or the monopoly of the Israel Electric Corporation. The steps that the government would like to take relate to the fundamentals of the existence of the state - defining its borders, defining its identity, the place of the rule of law, and Israel's ability to bring calm to the conflict with its neighbors. When, on such basic issues, the government behaves like a leaf in the wind, the feeling it bestows on its citizens is that they are living in an era in which the strong are the dominant ones.
Evacuating illegal outposts and restoring privately owned land taken over by settlements are necessary steps of government, both from an ethical point of view and also in terms of administration. A government that is not able to enforce its authority in such matters, and instead allows anarchy to take over issues pertaining to the relationship between state and citizen, as well as among individual persons, relinquishes its ability to impose its authority. A government that thaws a freeze on settlement construction, about which it has made a promise to an American president, and allows the establishment of Jewish neighborhoods inside concentrations of Palestinian populations in East Jerusalem, undermines by its own hand the path it is trying to lay in negotiations for peace. And in a less severe example - a government that retreats from its intention to impose order in the already breached field of military exemptions for young Haredim, declares that it is only wearing the garments of leadership.
Olmert and Barak may argue that the main point is to begin change: to evacuate a small number of outposts, preferably by accord and not through confrontation, so that they can create a precedent; thawing construction in a few places, in order to get Shas agreement to freeze construction in the rest of the settlements; stir a little trouble about the yeshiva students avoiding military service, so that those responsible for this phenomenon will wake up from their complacency.
This argument is deceptive: The illegal settlements, in their vast majority, will stay in place; the new neighborhoods that are built will only burden the likelihood of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians; there will be no real change to the number of yeshiva students who evade the draft. These results will not make things easier - they will only make matters more complicated. They will not reflect the government's sophistication - only its helplessness.
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