Where's the Beef?

Israel has known narrow and shaky governments, leaders with no public support, a culture of public squares that has tried to appeal and repeal the results at the ballot box.

Even during U.S. President George W. Bush's visit, all the indicators of Israel's nationhood and sovereignty were on display: flags, an honor guard, indoor and outdoor stage settings at the tabernacles of government. There was even an energetic-looking prime minister there who performed wonderful verbal acrobatics in keeping with all the rules of courtesy and ceremony. The guest could well have formed the impression that he had come to a state like any other, with a democracy that is alive and kicking, that unlike the Palestinian Authority, for example, has been blessed with a clear, solid and determined leadership that can make deals and whose word is reliable.

A somewhat closer look would perhaps have reminded the president of the old television spot for the Wendy's fast-food chain: An elderly woman examines a rival chain's burger, and at the sight of the tiny patty buried inside a huge, spongy and airy roll, she emits the famous cry: "Where's the beef?!"

This question might be asked with respect to diplomatic Israel, if it exists at all beyond the prime minister's smooth tongue: Is there any beef there, beyond the compliments and the high language? Is there any sold mass beyond the survival dance of the diffuse and spongy coalition of Olmert-Barak-Lieberman-Yishai? Is there anything to sink one's teeth into, and who will do the sinking?

Israel has known narrow and shaky governments, leaders with no public support, a culture of public squares that has tried to appeal and repeal the results at the ballot box. But even in the crudest experiences of delegitimization, it was at least clear to the governments and their heads whom they were trying to topple, what policy they were trying to replace, and above all, why. Ehud Olmert's government, however, is unique; it has held on only because it already has wilted: Unable to implement a policy that in any case has not been thought out, it exists only thanks to the balance of interests of those seeking to topple it.

The opposition "coalition" is also quite strange, as it is no less diffuse than the official coalition: Indeed, in addition to the usual suspects lurking in wait for any leadership downfall (the messianic forces and the inert settlers in the territories, Likud chair MK Benjamin Netanyahu and his "I want to be prime minister" obsession), the lineup of government opponents is unprecedentedly heterogeneous: reservists, retired officers, rabbis, bereaved parents, prisoners' parents, world-menders, platform-seekers and the plain insulted from wall to wall, including ministers and Knesset members from the coalition itself. Their only common denominator is the absence of a common denominator, ideology or idea, apart from "dismantle Olmert" no matter what.

But even the concern with Olmert, which has become the only agenda in the political expanse, is part of that same horizonless vacuum devoid of responsibility in which Olmert stands accused. Here, too, one could ask, "Where's the beef?" What is the proposed alternative? The counter-idea? The enthusiastic supporters of the Second Lebanon War are blaming Olmert for its eruption; without any feasible plan of their own, they are accusing the prime minister both of not having a policy and of not implementing it.

The sad impression, which became even more obvious during Bush's visit, is that Israel as a coherent state entity is living on its high-flown rhetoric and its external image more than the practical plane. As long as it is headed by a dominant, preferably patriarchal leader (like Ariel Sharon), it somehow maintains the appearance of a normal nation-state, with orderly government and authority. But when a gray figure from the ranks (who is not actually inferior to many leaders in the democratic world) comes into power, everything cracks and the shtetl is revealed: the fringe elements running around frantically and the renouncing of the central authority, the "policy" that is nothing but lobbying, the rejection of "decrees," the kowtowing to the lord or else ganging up on him, and the fatalism and ne'er-do-well speculations as to whether his successor will be "good for the Jews" or "bad for the Jews."

Yes, there were drums and brass bands this week, an army, an anthem, strong speeches and even red carpets. But where's the state?