As Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar aptly noted on Monday, Ariel Sharon currently appears poised to become the first person ever elected precisely because nobody believes a word he says. Although Sharon continually pledges allegiance to the road-map peace plan, most of his supporters do not really believe that he intends to negotiate a final-status deal with the Palestinians, which is the plan's key provision; if they did, they would almost certainly not vote for him. Similarly, though Sharon has repeatedly vowed not to carry out another unilateral withdrawal, most of his supporters plan to vote for him because they do expect him to unilaterally withdraw from more of the West Bank.
And this is precisely what makes the prospect of a Sharon victory so frightening: By rewarding Sharon's dishonesty rather than penalizing it, Israeli voters would send the message that not only do they not object to being told lies, they actually want and expect their leaders to lie to them.
Lying to the electorate has been the Israeli political norm for the last 13 years, ever since Yitzhak Rabin's victory in 1992. Rabin campaigned on a pledge to try to make peace with Israel's Arab neighbors, but consistently stressed two red lines: He would not negotiate with the PLO, and he would not cede the Golan Heights. And many centrists voted for him precisely because of these promises. Yet little more than a year after taking office, he signed the Oslo Accord with the PLO. And not long after that, he offered the entire Golan to Syria - an offer that failed only due to Hafez Assad's intransigence.
Then, as if this were not enough, he introduced an even greater corruption of the democratic process: To secure Knesset approval of the Oslo-2 accord in 1995, he bribed two MKs elected on the right-wing Tsomet ticket to give him the two final votes that he needed. He did this by offering them a ministry and deputy ministry - complete with attendant financial perks, from higher salary and pension to free mail and telephone service - even though this was illegal at the time. To get around that problem, he retroactively amended the law that prohibited such political bribery.
In short, Rabin viewed chicanery and bribery as perfectly acceptable means of implementing one's political program. But thanks to Yigal Amir, nobody will ever know whether the electorate agreed: By assassinating Rabin, Amir effectively denied Israelis the chance to express their opinion of Rabin's behavior at the polls.
Ehud Barak also violated one of his key campaign pledges. Like Rabin, he campaigned on a promise to make peace, but also like Rabin, he had a red line that he reiterated over and over: He would not divide Jerusalem. And, again like Rabin, he received many votes from centrists who were reassured by this promise. Yet a little over a year after being elected, he, too, blithely violated his pledge, offering Yasser Arafat half of Jerusalem, including much of the Old City and the Temple Mount. Only Arafat's intransigence kept this offer from being implemented. But nobody will ever know what Israelis really thought of Barak's deceit either: The recently launched intifada overshadowed everything else in the 2001 campaign.
THEN, FINALLY, there was Sharon. The central issue of the 2003 campaign was Amram Mitzna's proposal for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Sharon campaigned vigorously against this idea, and the public rewarded him with a landslide victory. Yet less than a year later, Sharon turned around and adopted the very program that he devoted his campaign to trashing.
Then, adding insult to injury, he submitted the disengagement to a referendum of Likud members (i.e. the people who made him a prime ministerial candidate) and promised to abide by the results. Yet when the party membership decisively rejected the plan, he promptly reneged on that promise as well.
Sharon's broken promises over disengagement inevitably undermined his credibility. But now, in a display of true political genius, he is trying to turn this lack of credibility from a liability into an asset. Essentially, he is winking at the voters and saying: Vote for me because you know that I am lying. Vote for me because you know that I will do the opposite of what I say - but by not saying it, I can also steal votes from the credulous, and thereby win more seats than I could by telling the truth. And so far, this approach seems to be working: Initial polls show Sharon's new party getting more seats than either Likud or Labor, thereby positioning him to form the next government.
Four months are an eternity in Israeli political life, so by election day some urgent new development may well have made this issue irrelevant, just as Palestinian violence erased all other concerns in 2001. But for now, it looks as if the upcoming election will primarily be a referendum on Sharon's performance as prime minister. Thus voters are faced with a simple choice: They can say, loudly and clearly, that they are tired of being fed lies; that they want politicians to tell the truth about their intentions and thereby allow them to make a real choice about the country's future. Or, by reelecting Sharon, they can declare that not only is being lied to perfectly fine, but they actually prefer it to being told the truth.
In that case, two things are certain. First, no Israeli politician will ever again consider honesty a viable policy; anyone who values integrity will understand that he does not belong in politics and quit.
As a result, Israeli politics will become even more dishonest, corrupt and debased than they already are.
And second, Israelis will deserve every bit of it.
The writer, a regular Israel-based contributor, is a veteran observer of the political scene.