When the Penny Drops

Israel suffered from a delayed response in dealing with Sharon's sudden disappearance from the political arena. In the absence of that famous general, will citizen Amir Peretz now have his day?

On the face of it, Israel has accepted the sudden, mind-boggling disappearance of Ariel Sharon from the political map with maturity, stoicism and even something that looks suspiciously like indifference. From the look of things, Israel has come to terms with the black hole left by this man who has been virtually synonymous with Israeli politics, security and policy since the start of the millennium. Nothing, it would seem, could be simpler. If Ehud Olmert (or anyone else) would just smile a grandfatherly smile, twitch his nose like Sharon used to do, shrug off all accusations of corruption and say "I don't deal with that" - the black hole would soon fill up with the silt and ashes of oblivion. "Life must go on," you know. "There's no one who can't be replaced," etcetera, etcetera.

But it only seems that way. It is quite possible that the implications of Sharon's abrupt departure have not even begun to sink in. It is quite possible that what seems like "maturity, stoicism and even indifference," is only a delayed reaction of the kind you see in comedies, dramas and cartoons. What looks at first like stoic tranquillity and solemn acceptance of the barbs of fate, disintegrates into total breakdown when the penny finally drops.

This "delayed reaction" effect in the case of Sharon's disappearance is reflected almost graphically in the surveys: from almost anomalous support of his semi-private party, which only increased the deeper the man sank into a coma, to a drop in the polls with the onset of the awakening this week. No, not Sharon's awakening, but the late awakening of the public, which has begun to realize that this is not a lull in the battle or the proprietor taking a mid-day siesta, but something more like what Raymond Chandler calls the "Big Sleep."

It is precisely our slowness in awakening to this post-Sharon reality that shows what a huge space he occupied in our lives, for good or for bad - a space that was saved for him for weeks after he was gone. Because his influence was so broad, it was possible to keep on believing that he was still there, at his ranch or in the corridors of power. This explains the initial tide of support for Ehud Olmert, who was perceived at first, if only by force of inertia, as Sharon's stand-in in the literal sense, i.e., someone saving the space for him.

But now that Olmert and other candidates are starting to fill this space, and the surveys are starting to reflect what the public is looking for in a candidate, perhaps now is the time to remind ourselves of the mind-set that brought Sharon to power in the first place, and made him so incredibly popular.

It wasn't the economy, it wasn't social distress, and it wasn't peace. For the most part, it was fear and despair. It was the need for shelter and protection in the most elementary and raw sense of the word that led the public to rally around Sharon for many long years. In fact, judging by the opinion polls, this is what the public is still looking for. Proof lies in the almost mathematical correlation between public support for political parties and politicians, and the amount of "security" they claim to provide. This week, for instance, the very idea of installing ex-general Ami Ayalon as chairman of the Labor party instead of citizen Amir Peretz boosted the party by at least six Knesset seats.

As orphans of Sharon, it is not the good life, integrity, the pursuit of peace or a healthy economy that we have lost. It is the sense of power and security (with the emphasis on "sense"). True, none of the three major parties are headed this time by retired generals, and all the agendas today's candidates are pushing appear to be civilian at the core.

But even in the elections of 2006, the face-off is between the cadre of officers huddling around Ehud Olmert, the collection of top brass Amir Peretz has managed to scrape together and the Don Quixote pretensions of "Mr. Terror" Netanyahu, who claims he will be "tougher on Hamas" than both barracks of officers combined.

A civilian agenda, like the rainbow, seems to get further away the closer you come. Israel, going on 60, is still at the same mental stage as the day it was born. It is still guided by raw, existential fear. It is still searching for the most elementary thing in human and national life: protection and shelter, preferably behind a nice brave soldier - the one with the biggest gun. Today, reflecting on our response to the rise of Hamas, it is hard to say whether existential dangers have shaped our primeval mentality or this mentality plays a role in cultivating those dangers.