In democracies, the majority rules. But since the days of the Greek city-state, the people have not ruled directly - they have relied on representatives. In Israeli politics of 2004, after the scrapping of the direct election system following stormy arguments, the mediator is the political party. The party is what determines the ideological agenda, and chooses a list of Knesset candidates. It is what selects as its head a person who becomes candidate for the post of prime minister, and who tries to take the reins of power. Israel's prime minister takes power courtesy of his political party.
Within the party framework, party members play a role in forming agendas. In this respect, Sharon was right to turn to his party and ask it to decide about the disengagement plan. The claim which is being raised against Sharon - that it is not fair for a minority (the members of a particular political party) to set the agenda for the majority - is absurd. This minority has already legitimately determined who will head the party list, how its Knesset candidate list is to be ordered, and (in some cases) who will serve as ministers.
Parties in Israel are supposed to select their leaders, and to set the public agenda for these leaders. The parties, and only the parties, can change their platforms, and bestow legitimacy on changes in policy direction.
Unlike the Likud central membership, which is sometimes accused of corruption and submission to elements close to organized crime in Israel, Likud members who cast ballots in the referendum voted out of ideological principle, and in accord with their consciences. They voted against the prime minister because he himself taught them to think differently, to believe that what happens in Netzarim is the same as what happens in Tel Aviv, and that the settlements are an invaluable asset to the state of Israel.
This was the message that led them to select Sharon to head their party, and all they did in the referendum was demand that he live up to his past statements and actions and represent the values they uphold. So the problem is neither the referendum, nor the fact that Likud members, a minority of the population, determined how Sharon should act.
The opposite is the case - the problem is that after his election, Sharon operated at variance with the views of the constituency which brought him to power. Although he was not chosen by direct prime ministerial elections, Sharon acted as though he had no obligation toward the party that selected him to lead it. He showed sheer contempt toward the party's institutions, its members, and anyone who tried to stop him from doing whatever he wants.
Many in Israel applauded Sharon when he promised to uphold the idea of a Palestinian state, despite the opposition of Likud's center. Israel's political center, along with the country's media, applauded Sharon's "courageous" defiance of his own party. But it was here where the seeds of disorder and failure were sown.
Sharon's setback has many precedents. Israeli politics has witnessed prime ministers who ran as candidates on the basis of one ideological platform, and then enacted a different sort of policy after they were elected. Begin, Rabin and Barak acted this way before Sharon.
Such behavior has become so routine that many believe that it is a laudable, accepted norm which enables a leader to be elected while articulating views palatable to a majority of Israelis, and then exempting himself from this platform after his election.
In fact this is an anti-democratic, deplorable practice whose damage far outweighs its utility. First, it reinforces cynicism and lack of faith in politics and politicians. Second, when the moment of decision comes, this feeling of being swindled exacerbates opposition to a policy initiative, and curbs the public's ability to support the initiative. That happened to Rabin after the Oslo agreement, to Barak during the Camp David summit, and to Sharon in the recent referendum.
The lesson to be learned from these repeated failures is very clear. In order to carry out a far-reaching political or social policy a leader must explain his acts, receive his party's support, and then obtain a mandate from the people. He cannot demand that those who elected him will support him whichever way he moves. The system of "trust me whatever I do" justifiably came to a bitter end in the Likud referendum. The era of personal politics also drew to a close. We have returned to the system of party elections, and to the ideological political framework.
Sharon was able to divorce himself from his party, and so was elected prime minister on the basis of a policy platform he couldn't enact. Had Sharon divulged his present policy plan to Likud members, it is reasonable to assume that he would not have been chosen to head the party, and would not today be prime minister.
A Likud representative chosen on the basis of the extreme right wing views held by the party's members would not have been elected to head a Knesset faction of 40 members. Likud won a sweeping victory in the elections because Sharon concealed the truth from his own constituency; then he failed when the moment of truth arrived.
Today all parties must vie in the political arena on the basis of their platforms, knowing that there is no way to cheat the people. Politicians must tell the truth in election campaigns, so that in addition to winning at the polls, they will have a chance of implementing the policies of their choice.
Only in such a political climate will the public know which parties offer genuine solutions, and which propose fool's gold. Only in such a climate will the people's choice at the polls have real value.
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