sharon empty seat 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Friends, and even erstwhile foes, have all been praising Ariel Sharon not only as a great general who repeatedly saved Israel, but as a great patriot, who in his irreverent way was also a dedicated son of the Jewish people.
But even the conviction that Sharon, with all his faults, was the best leader because he was determined "to do what is necessary" does not explain fully the curious reaction of the Israeli people to his (and their) predicament. Why do Israelis, as they gradually come to realize that Sharon may not be able to lead them, keep flocking to his party, ignoring its amorphous, problematic composition, its undemocratic nature, and its lack of any known concrete plans for meeting the daunting challenges facing Israel?
True, in times of national emergency people tend to support leadership, even when it is not really great. Israelis are no different. After a century of bloody conflict with the Arabs, after the Second World War and the Holocaust, Israelis are exhausted. So they seek a leader who can lighten some of the impossible burdens they bear.
The clamor for a strong father figure could, however, further damage an already brittle Israeli democracy. Suffering from an extreme concentration of power - not only political, but also economic - Israel has already damaged orderly governance by relying too heavily on the predilections, indeed the whims, of a few central players.
In the banking industry, for example, less than half a dozen people have, for decades, been allocating hundreds of billions in loans to a few big players with disastrous results. Two decades of productive investment were lost and the economy almost collapsed.
THE SAME self-destructive concentration of excessive power has made Israeli governments unruly behemoths. Even the best managers, following a coherent policy set by a strong "board of directors," would find impossible to manage them. They have too many conflicting tasks, from allocating land and airwave rights (making the winners billionaires) to assuring the proper branding of camels and the right amount of jelly in Hanukka doughnuts. Their Byzantine bureaucracies are incapable of executing anything resembling a coherent policy. When they overcome their habitual paralysis, they implement a mishmash of conflicting political impulses, their left hand often undoing what their right hand has been trying to accomplish at great cost.
The Prime Minister's Office, for example, has so many responsibilities and concerns that it cannot possibly deal with them effectively. Yet Sharon, feeling frustrated with bureaucratic foot dragging, tried to move things by assuming ever-wider responsibilities, adding several ministries to his duties (after Sharon's illness, his deputy, Ehud Olmert, held 15 portfolios!). But this just created worse logjams and further incapacitated the government.
If Israel has made remarkable progress, it was despite its governments. All of them were marred by serious failures - some dramatic, others slow but unrelenting. Despite brilliantly winning many battles against great odds, Israeli governments invariably managed to snatch political defeat from the jaws of victory. They let a criminal terrorist organization win a propaganda war with great lies without seriously challenging them, thus losing crucial international support and permitting the PLO to implement its subversive agenda so that it became a strategic threat to Israel.
Following socialist and then statist economic policies, Israeli governments managed to turn a most talented people, full of energy and invention, into an economic cripple. Most families can barely keep their heads above water, finding its nearly impossible to make it on a salary of about $1,200 a month (this with prices usually higher than those in America!).
It is economic exhaustion, on top of the exhaustion caused by the prolonged struggle to survive, that probably accounts for the political passivity of many Israelis. They have most admirably withstood pressures that few other peoples would withstand, including facing relentless terrorist attacks (and they withstood them - it should be stressed - without losing their humanity, still allowing Palestinian Arabs to enjoy the safe freedom of Israeli cities even after the most monstrous terrorist outrages). But the combination of constant danger with a grinding daily struggle for economic survival is just too much.
Israelis feel that life is too difficult. Weariness and despair bred a mystic yearning for quick-fix solutions, for immediate messianic salvation in the form of Peace Now and its "peace camp" mutations.
Such yearnings mutate reality and lead to the apotheosis of those who seem to shape it. Arafat, a terrorist dictator, a mega-thief who inflicted untold suffering on innocents, Jews and Arabs alike, was metamorphosed by the Israeli Left into a benevolent and heroic statesman, his nation's humane father. It should not surprise us, then, that the same leftist crowd controlling the Israeli media has been similarly transforming Sharon, just because they believed that he adopted their faith by ordering Israeli withdrawals from "occupied Palestinian lands" and by supporting the creation of a Palestinian state. This alone was sufficient to turn an allegedly "murderous" man they hated so viscerally into a lovable, grandfatherly figure. Nothing else mattered, neither what Sharon's endgame was, if he had any, nor what his followers may be up to, even though vague intentions came to replace policy.
A drama of Greek proportions, it may, alas, end in tragedy.
The writer is director of The Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress.