Next Year's Man of the Year

While in other countries the transition from 2004 to 2005 is like the transition from today to tomorrow, the transition here tonight is like going through a generation in the life of the country.

This country rummages in the past too much and too little in what is expected to happen in the near future. It isn't the men of the past year who should be sought, but rather next year's people. They will determine Israel's image and its fate. Seven years ago, I began an article on the subject of man of the year with these words. The new wrinkle this time is that the man in question is someone who was worthy of being chosen at least five times as the person who influenced our lives for good or for ill, but never won.

Before we get to the man of next year, it is worth summing up from the model of the kind of year we will be taking leave of tonight at midnight. From "the year of the knife," "the year of the Ectasy," "the year of the ego" or "the year of the turnaround?" The most outstanding phenomenon of the year is that, while television entertainment is crammed with reality, the political reality has increasingly become entertainment.

Liuba the supermarket cashier, in Tal Friedman's stellar rendition on the sketch comedy show "Wonderful Land," put the difficulties of Russian immigrants and the impecunious on the agenda, enriching the Hebrew language with her malapropisms and sighs. The imitators of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon transformed him from a tough fighter to a likable character who, in his cunning, wraps the entire country around his little finger. Likud party hack Uzi Cohen, in the stellar rendition by Eli Finish, is so successful that the imitation itself has become a reality. Cohen fell in love with his double. Finish's bizarre appearance at the Likud convention reinforced the original Cohen in his conviction that he is indeed all-powerful.

The political and the public establishment was characterized by an insatiable appetite for self-publicity. In the old days, a government minister had a bureau chief, a driver, a secretary and a spokesmen. Nowadays, ministers have "strategic advisers," image consultants, public relations firms and even full-time makeup artists. I don't know of any other country where government ministers are so available for appearances at any moment and on any day on the news channels and on daily news programs of all sorts. The way they put themselves into the hands of aggressive interviewers embarrasses the viewer more than it benefits the interviewee. In "the year of the ego," the non-talking politician does not exist. Knowing what is demanded of him, he is also ready to produce a headline, involving the extensive use of the word "I." Yehoshua Elitzur, Pinchas Wallerstein and the movement for the orange patch and refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces during the disengagement created a storm in the political arena with a threat of violent resistance, but achieved the opposite effect and retreated.

This year's innovation is in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision (and primarily his ability) to fire government ministers who oppose his line. Uzi Landau (Likud) was fired and evaporated, Effie Eitam (National Religious Party) and Avigdor (Yvet) Lieberman (National Union) melted away. No one knows whether disengagement opponent Natan Sharansky (Likud) is a government minister or not - he simply doesn't exist. And when the time comes, Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, who missed an opportunity to make history because of NIS 290 million for United Torah Judaism, will be slotted into the saga of the man who wasn't there.

For good or for ill (as Time magazine defines it), the bully Sharon could have been man of the year five times in his life. First, when he founded the Likud, thus preventing the sunset of Herut and putting together a replacement power for the Alignment (an earlier incarnation of today's Labor Party). The second time, when he crossed the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War, cut off the Egyptian Third Army and thus brought about face-to-face talks between Israelis and Egyptians at Kilometer 101 (from Cairo) - a turning that paved the way to the agreement and the peace with Egypt. The third time, when he embroiled the country in the blood-soaked war in Lebanon. The fourth time, when he forcibly dismantled the settlements in Yamit and established for the first time the principle of taking down settlements in return for a peace agreement. The fifth time, when he covered the West Bank with a network of Jewish settlements that created an irreversible situation with respect to an agreement with the Palestinians and gave rise to the first intifada. And now the sixth time, when he formulated the initiative of the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, determined to carry it out in defiance of the opinion of the majority in his party.

While in other countries the transition from 2004 to 2005 is like the transition from today to tomorrow, the transition here tonight is like going through a generation in the life of the country. This year Sharon changed his mind, but his test will be in the implementation even at the price of blood and fire. Only at this time next year will we know whether he is worthy of being next year's man of the year.