The person mostly responsible for the outcome of the elections didn't vote: Ariel Sharon, who produced the "big bang" and took the first step toward convergence out of the territories before he fell ill and was hospitalized. But he did not make do with refreshing the party map and leading a unilateral policy regarding the Palestinians. Sharon also laid the groundwork for the negative attitude that holds politics and politicians in scorn. This, too, is his legacy.
In his five years as prime minister and especially during the 18 months he struggled with the Likud rebels over the withdrawal from Gaza, Sharon demonstrated growing disgust with the party infighting. His harsh words against his Likud faction colleagues were usually reserved for rooms with closed doors, his office and the Farm Forum. But the message was clear: Politicians are leeching, spineless, opportunistic pursuers of seats, or they are ideological deceivers who get in the way of his leadership of the country; while he is statesmanlike, they are political.
Nobody came out well from the moves Sharon led. Not the ministers from the right who fought with him and were fired. Not his rivals in the Likud, who were presented as annoying troublemakers, and not even his partners, who looked like pathetic puppets controlled by Sharon the master. It happened to Tommy Lapid, who was humiliated and kicked out of the coalition; and it happened to Shimon Peres, who accepted the marginal portfolio of minister of Galilee and Negev development, and after his defeat in Labor's primaries, escaped to Arik's new party.
The media cheered the tricks and juggling and delighted in the deeds of the Gulliver Sharon among the political Lilliputians. It accepted his approach that every ideology is an unnecessary annoyance, that all the politicians are the same, and that they all have a price for which they can be bought. The public also believed Sharon. The result was evident on Election Day in the low turnout, the protest vote for the Pensioners and the breakup of the Knesset into middling sized parties. The issues that were up for decision this time - the evacuation of settlers from the West Bank, changing the order of social priorities and the change in leadership - were critical for the future of the country. But the citizenry preferred to go to the beach and justified it with disgust for "all the politicians."
Kadima was the establishment of the "world without politicians" that Sharon initiated - no central committee, no activists bothering the MKs in the Knesset dining room. It was just a list of candidates with slick messages and an appetite for power. The public was ready to buy that merchandise from Sharon. But when he disappeared from the arena the public was left with Ehud Olmert, Tzachi Hanegbi, Peres and Haim Ramon, the very same politicians heard every morning on the radio. Highlighting new stars like Tzipi Livni and Avi Dichter did not hide the old skeleton. The result was that the voters punished Kadima and did not give it enough Knesset seats for a stable government. Rafi Eitan and his gang of pensioners, who never were interviewed on the radio, were more attractive.
Sharon conceived himself as the authorized interpreter of the national interest and regarded the political system as a damaging annoyance. At the height of his power, after the successful disengagement, he dismantled the system and left it smashed. The vital mission of his successors will be to rehabilitate public confidence in politics, to prevent a deepening of the apathy and alienation that could weaken Israeli democracy. Getting rid of problematic MKs from the parties was an important step in that direction, but it is not enough. The behavior of the politicians during the first days of the coalition negotiations shows that the parties have not yet fully digested the meaning of their failure in the elections. The leadership of Olmert will be tested by his success at creating a new political culture no less than by his ability to evacuate settlers.
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