Magnanimous in Victory

Sharon's triumph over the Haredi parties gives him a unique opportunity to transform Israeli society.

Ariel Sharon received a great deal of well-deserved praise from all quarters this week - praise that referred mainly to the prowess of his private parts. As a man and as a politician, he was indeed walking tall. And as a veteran parliamentarian, and the person currently responsible for maintaining proper government practices, he deserves kudos for his steely resolve in facing the hollow threats of Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Now, the prime minister has the opportunity to transform his moment of glory into something permanent, an event that will be remembered as the start of a real revolution.

Much depends on how he presents his accomplishment. If he joins the chorus of voices that marvel at his machismo and bash the ultra-Orthodox, then he will miss the moment. If, on the other hand, Sharon presents his mauling of the Shas and UTJ politicians this week as the first step in the healing of Israeli society from the paralysis into which it has sunk - then he will have made a lasting difference.

It is vitally important that this interpretation of what happened be stated by the prime minister not only to the public at large, but directly to the leaders of the Haredi sector - not to the MKs and the power brokers, whose survival depends on their continued lobbying for government largesse, but to the top rabbis themselves.

Experts have been predicting for years that the warped economic structure created here by the ultra-Orthodox would one day implode, because secular citizens would simply get tired of supporting its rotten foundations. How much longer, after all, is it possible to feed, house and provide for the health and welfare of tens of thousands of young, able-bodied people who simply refuse to work? People who have written themselves a new commandment that says "Thou shalt not work." Or serve in the army.

This implosion, which is inevitable, could bring about serious, even violent social upheaval. Or it could evolve in a gradual and controlled way. The pervasive expressions of hostility to Haredim, voiced this week after the dismissal of the Shas ministers, provided a reminder, for those that needed it, of the intense emotions bubbling just below the surface.

As fate would have it, this is happening on Sharon's watch. The passage of the emergency budget in the Knesset has opened a significant breach in the fortress of Haredi indolence. Sharon - not especially a Haredi-hater, even seeing them as his political and ideological allies - is capable of controlling the dangerous energies that have been released, of attenuating the enmities, and transforming his popular political victory into fundamental, long-term change.

The prime minister should bring together the three major figures of the Haredi sector - Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Gerer Rebbe and Rabbi Eliashiv. His cart is now loaded full enough - with overwhelming public support for his moves - that these men will deign to sit down and talk to him seriously about the nation's future.

Sharon could relay to them the ominous lecture he recently heard from Israel's top economists. He would also do well to speak frankly of the intense contempt for Haredim that has taken root among many Israelis, compounding contempt for religion itself. He should be frank, because the Haredi MKs - ostensible agents of the rabbis' will - presumably conceal or misrepresent such unpleasant aspects of reality in their reports to their mentors. The prime minister could mention certain cracks - positive cracks - that have already opened in the wall of rejectionism and indolence: the Haredi Nahal unit in the IDF, for example, and the many career training courses that have sprung up (in conditions of the strictest Orthodoxy) that equip people to go out and earn a dignified livelihood.

Above all, in the course of such a no-holds-barred conversation - which only he, and only they, can conduct - the prime minister could assure the rabbis that they need no longer fear their sons being drafted into the army and taking their places in the workforce. The Haredim are numerous enough and powerful enough to demand the conditions they consider necessary to maintain their unique lifestyle, whether in the army or the workplace.

The success of the Haredi community is so overwhelming, quantitatively and qualitatively, that it is well-nigh irreversible. Secular, Zionist society has failed in its efforts to compel the Haredi minority to blend into the majority ethos and give up its uniqueness. On the contrary, within only two generations the currents of history have changed course, and the Haredim are growing more numerous and more powerful. It is this power - Sharon can tell the rabbis - that enables them to open their ghetto gates and join the productive forces of Israeli society.

Sharon's resounding victory in his round of arm-wrestling with the Haredi political machine provides him, and the state, with a rare moment of grace. It enables him to go to the rabbis and admit that in fact, they are the real victors.