Finally, Israelis Have a Real Choice

March's election will be a real democratic event. Now, when the three different paths for the future of Israel have three different leaders, Israeli citizens have a real choice.

Is Benjamin Netanyahu's victory in the party's leadership contest good for the Likud? It depends on the Palestinians.

If the Palestinians demonstrate restraint and responsibility, resume the lull in violence and do not turn Gaza into Hamastan here and now, Netanyahu's election will hurt the Likud very much. If a situation of violence does not prevail in Israel during the coming months, no one will be interested in listening to Bibi's arguments against the disengagement, while the social mood will deliver a merciless blow to Netanyahu and the Likud.

On the other hand, if the Palestinians do not restrain themselves, if they are tempted into doing to Sharon in 2006 what they did to Peres in 1996 and to Barak in 2000, Netanyahu will be transformed overnight from a loser to a winner. A series of serious terror attacks, salvos of Qassams on Ashkelon or a takeover of the Palestinian Authority by Hamas would reshuffle the political deck and propel the Netanyahu-led Likud to an electoral achievement that seems imaginary at the moment.

However, Netanyahu's winning of the Likud's leadership is not just a matter for Likudniks. It is an issue for all Israelis. And from an overall Israeli perspective, this victory is welcome. It serves Israeli democracy.

Until November 2005, democracy in Israel suffered from one central defect: The party system did not represent the public. In the absence of a large center party, the new and pragmatic Israeli center was not represented in the Knesset. The sane and realistic Israeli majority that has coalesced over the past five years remained without a voice and lacked political expression. Anachronistic parties on the right and left tied its hands and muzzled its mouth.

The big bang at once corrected this defect. By liberating the majority from the shackles of extremist groups, the big bang made a huge contribution to revitalizing Israeli politics. It ensured that the next Knesset would be a Knesset that reflects the will of most Israelis. It ensured that the government would no longer be a hostage in the hands of messianic fanatics.

However, while the big bang corrected one defect, it created another. It led the political system to adopt a uniform mindset that is not exposed to real criticism. Thus, at some point during the past month, the great march toward the center became bothersome. When wrapped under the mantle of the single leader, it even became troubling. The combination of uniform thinking, one center and a single leader is not a heartening combination. It is also not very democratic.

Amir Peretz provided a response of a sort to the syndrome taking shape - the syndrome of a society without an opposition. However, the response Peretz gave is only a social one. On the political-diplomatic front, the conformist uniformity continues to dominate. When no one listens anymore to Yossi Beilin and no one listens anymore to Uzi Landau, the result is an uncritical consensus that could very easily evolve into a dangerous conception.

For this reason, Netanyahu is important. This is why his election as Likud leader is good for Israeli democracy, because even if Netanyahu is not currently fit to be prime minister, he is definitely fit to be opposition leader. Even if he is unable to replace Ariel Sharon in governing, he can definitely present an alternative path to that of Sharon.

Netanyahu also proved he knows how to swim against the tide in taking a stance against the Oslo euphoria in the 1990s. He knows how to be a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. When the flock follows the shepherd with eyes closed, Netanyahu knows to step outside the flock and howl against it. These howls are essential for conducting an appropriate public debate and for conducting a fair democratic process. The opposite position that Netanyahu knows how to represent is very much needed today, so that the fateful decisions on partitioning the Land of Israel will be made during the coming years in a conscious, intelligent and balanced way.

The hour of dread we all experienced at the beginning of the week illustrated how much Israel needs Ariel Sharon and the depth of the leadership void gaping beyond Sharon's tenure. But even someone who believes in Arik with all his heart and soul should know that we must not make him into a sole ruler. We must not make him into an all-powerful leader with a nation of yes-men in tow. Thus, the placement of Peretz and Netanyahu at the head of the two ideological movements challenging Sharon is a blessing. It completes the big bang, balances it and makes it into a real democratic event. Now, when the three different paths for the future of Israel have three different leaders, Israeli citizens have a real choice. Therefore, the decision they make on March 28 will be a binding decision. It will be a decision that will give a clear moral mandate to the big division, which Netanyahu will criticize, Peretz will adopt and Sharon will lead.