The Democratic Ethos Versus Security

When procedures intended to protect the life of the prime minister begin to endanger the lives of citizens, clearly, something needs to change.

As the prime minister's well-guarded convoy zoomed toward the entrance to Jerusalem last week, it hit and injured a girl who was crossing the street. According to media reports, which have so far not been denied, the convoy crossed the intersection on a red light, while the girl crossed the street on a green light.

When procedures intended to protect the life of the prime minister begin to endanger the lives of citizens, clearly, something needs to change.

The source of this hysterical protection is no mystery: After the shameful failure that made prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination possible, the security services resolved to wrap the prime minister in a "zero-risk" environment, no matter what the cost - economic or in terms of Israel's lifestyle. Their justified concerns are understandable, but the cost is insufferable.

When the prime minister was to participate in a seminar at a Jerusalem research institute a few months ago, the area was surrounded with a wall of security a day in advance: Access roads were closed, nearby streets were blocked off to evening traffic, parked cars were removed and even towed, a security tent was put up, and the area became a fortified complex.

Those who drive Jerusalem's streets know that they may suddenly hear the wail of sirens and the terrifying voice of a policeman screaming through a loudspeaker: "Move aside! Aside!" Those unfamiliar with this practice may be frightened. But it is only the prime minister going back or forth from his home. Drivers might also see the prime minister's convoy driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction.

Institutes of higher education avoid inviting the prime minister to festive events because of everything involved: The campus is closed down hours before, parking lots are cordoned off, guests are asked to arrive two hours before the event. Who needs it? There are also collateral costs: the raising of a barrier between the people and its elected representatives, and the deepening of alienation toward the government.

Some nostalgically recall bygone days, when David Ben-Gurion would go down to the beach to show off his yoga exercises by standing on his head; or even not so long ago, when Yitzhak Shamir could be seen taking his evening constitutional accompanied by a bodyguard or two. Today, the prime minister cannot go on vacation, in Israel or abroad, without legions of bodyguards disrupting life for thousands of citizens at huge expense.

I remember when I visited Moscow toward the end of Communist rule, and the cars accompanying a senior official ran us brutally off the road. My host, a Soviet academic, justified this, but noted that it had not always been thus: After the revolution, "workers and comrades" could walk unhindered into Lenin's office in the Kremlin and spill out all their problems. Only after Dora Kaplan's attempt on Lenin's life did brutal security methods come into being. The similarity to what has happened in Israel is disturbing.

Clearly, the prime minister must be protected. But he himself can, and must, explain to the security establishment that there are also other considerations: the character of our society, the relationship between the government and its citizens, the nature of public spaces. The brutality and aggressiveness of the security establishment are more reminiscent of South American dictatorships than of a democratic society. Other democracies where heads of government are threatened (Britain, the United States) have efficient systems to protect their leaders, but they do not broadcast aggressiveness and lack of restraint as our "good old boys" do.

It is sad that this discussion is taking place only after a girl was injured while innocently crossing a street. The prime minister must prove that the democratic ethos, and not the security services, will determine our lifestyle.