Country in a Coma

Ariel Sharon believed in activism, Ehud Olmert believed in fantasy and Benjamin Netanyahu believes in stagnation.

Ariel Sharon wasn’t the only one who fell into a coma eight years ago, in January 2006. In many senses, the State of Israel has also been comatose since then. Sharon will be remembered as one of the biggest activist among Israeli leaders. He made enormous changes, for better and for worse, in our region. He was the bulldozer that established the settlements, and also the bulldozer that dared to tear them down as part of the peace treaty with Egypt and the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. He built the barrier separating us from the West Bank. He detested the status quo. He was a man of decisions and changes, a man who shaped reality instead of surrendering to it.

As prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak were also fairly active. They introduced reality-altering changes, the Oslo Accords and the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. The Gaza disengagement that Sharon orchestrated was Israel’s last strategic measure. Had Sharon not sunk into a coma, he likely would have taken additional courageous measures toward ending the occupation. But Sharon fell asleep, as did his successors.

The act of falling asleep can take the form of passivity and inaction. But it can also take the form of disconnecting from reality to the point that it leads to misdirected, disastrous activism. While Barak cannot be described as an inactive prime minister, to our surprise and disappointment his activism took the form of two unnecessary, high-casualty wars, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead. Ehud Olmert, who has been depicted as a moderate leader, lived in a fantasy world and chose the language of force as a solution. He spoke the language of negotiations too little and too late at the end of his term, when he was up to his neck in legal trouble.

Benjamin Netanyahu, in contrast, chose the language of stagnation. The status quo is the Golden Calf he worships. For prolonged periods he took no action, closed his eyes and avoided dealing with a host of issues: the occupation, the social protests, rising poverty, the high cost of living in Israel in general and of housing in particular, the collapse of Israel’s health, education and welfare systems, the diminution of Israel’s international status and its transformation into a pariah state.

Israel is sleeping, do not disturb. The storm may rage all around it, as the anthem of the Palmach, the pre-State underground Jewish militia, begins, but its leadership is deep asleep. What of the tens of thousands who were swept up in the social protests of 2011, what of soaring home prices? Who cares? They jack up housing prices even higher and keep on sleeping. What about the fact that Israel has the highest poverty rate of all OECD member states? Big deal. They raise the value-added tax and cut child benefits, a sure recipe for reducing tens of thousands of people to poverty and giving the government a good night’s sleep. What about the crony capitalism and the scandalous “haircuts” to investors? Don’t bother us, we’re comatose.

Only immoderate physical pressure wakes up Netanyahu enough to do anything. The European boycott of the settlements and the insistence of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry performed alarm-clock duty, pushing the prime minister into talks with the Palestinians. But when Netanyahu does decide to act, he makes sure to cancel out his actions with concurrent countermeasures so as to preclude any change, heaven forfend. So it’s no surprise that over and over, the talks and the release of Palestinian prisoners are accompanied by the publication of massive construction plans in the settlements — roadside bombs to destroy the peace process, as Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On put it. When Netanyahu wakes up momentarily from his coma and floors the gas pedal, he also stomps on the brakes.

Netanyahu must wake up to the difficult situation gripping us from all sides. He must say yes to Kerry, adopt the courage of Sharon and take bold steps for the sake of peace. Now that death has released Sharon from his eight-year coma, Israel must awaken from its own comatose state.

Olivier Fitoussi