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Over the past year many Israelis justified Ariel Sharon's riding roughshod over democratic procedures on the grounds that only a strong leader could overcome the seemingly endless conflict and achieve stability, if not peace, for the nation. Similarly, media commentators who had been demonizing Sharon began deifying him by alleging that his unilateral disengagement had proven an outstanding success.
Yet this compromising of normal standards, democratic or journalistic, was not justified by the facts on the ground. Kassam rockets continue to rain down on Israel's population centers and Palestinian murderers are triumphantly predicting that the impending new round of terror to be launched after the Palestinian elections will finally destroy the Zionist state.
Paradoxically, it was secular rather than religious Israelis who were captivated by messianic fervor for Sharon, mesmerizing themselves into believing that they were supporting a centrist party. In reality they were entrusting the fate of the nation to an authoritarian leader whose brand-new Kadima party ranged from octogenarian Shimon Peres, who still extols the virtues of the Oslo Accords, to Tzahi Hanegbi, the former hard-line chairman of Likud.
Not surprisingly, many joining the Kadima bandwagon seemed more concerned about securing their political careers than promoting the national interest.
THE POLICIES of Kadima (as distinct from its vague manifesto) are utterly contradictory. Sharon had stated explicitly that there would be no further withdrawals until the terror infrastructure was dismantled, and that Jerusalem would remain an undivided city. Yet Sharon's aides simultaneously announced that Kadima would make further withdrawals from the West Bank, dismantling all settlements outside the main blocs as well as ceding major sections of east Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
When challenged to reconcile these contradictions prior to Sharon's illness, his aides had the effrontery to say that Sharon would enlighten the people about his policies at a time of his choosing after the elections.
Amazingly, even after Sharon was stricken, this personality cult continued to thrive. It was even mooted that a comatose Sharon should head the Kadima electoral list. But despite the ongoing state of denial, the absence of Sharon will, in all probability, now force Israelis to choose political alternatives rather than relying on one man and hoping for the best.
SHARON'S SUCCESSOR, Ehud Olmert, is an extremely talented politician with vast experience at all levels of government. He is also an articulate and charismatic orator with global exposure. However, if he is to retain the support of the electorate he will not be able to conceal his intentions with vague and contradictory policies, as Sharon did. He will be obliged to reconcile the conflicting factions in Kadima, which will require a highly sensitive balancing act. He is fortunate that, despite the absence of an internal hierarchy, Kadima politicians realize displays of disunity would bring about the undoing of their party.
Although in the volatile atmosphere of Israeli politics nothing can be taken for granted, Labor, headed by former trade union apparatchik Amir Peretz, is unlikely to dramatically reverse its downward trend, and Shinui has effectively imploded.
It may thus be Binyamin Netanyahu's opportunity to become a lead participant in the forthcoming national policy debate. Like Olmert, Netanyahu is a highly experienced and skilled operator who possesses a golden tongue. The high points since his return to politics have included a short but impressive term as foreign minister and an outstanding contribution as minister of finance, which earned him praise from even some of his strongest critics.
Netanyahu asserts that history has already vindicated his opposition to the Oslo Accords, for which he was demonized to the point of being blamed for the Rabin assassination. He also emphasizes that in demanding reciprocity from the Palestinians before making concessions during his term as prime minister, he did succeed in dramatically reducing terror. He expresses confidence that his opposition to unilateral disengagement will likewise be vindicated.
His biggest obstacle remains the media, which continues to react in an almost hysterical manner to every mention of his name, depicting him as a combination of a scheming Machiavelli and a devious opportunist.
Netanyahu is now trying to position the Likud as a centrist party by opposing further withdrawals without reciprocity and concentrating on the need for "defensible borders."
ALL PARTIES need to confront the cancer of corruption in public life which has reached a level that threatens to undermine the state. Over 30 years ago Ehud Olmert, then the youngest member in the Knesset, initiated a highly effective campaign against corruption in the field of sports and followed this with a major public onslaught against organized crime. Netanyahu recently announced his determination to purge the Likud of corrupt and criminal elements.
If Olmert and Netanyahu were to insist on transparency and governance, putting an end to the cronyism and sleaze that has become endemic to Israel's current political system, they would dramatically upgrade the entire Israeli body politic.
It is important to understand that much of the bitterness and outrage felt by opponents of the disengagement was compounded by the belief that Sharon had lied and behaved in a highly undemocratic manner. Hopefully, irrespective of the outcome, a genuine national debate followed by an election should ease these tensions and achieve closure on the basis of whatever path the majority of Israelis choose.
But to continue a genuine healing process the incoming government should adopt an entirely new approach to the public and reintroduce the democratic procedures and accountability discarded by their predecessors. It must ruthlessly eliminate corruption, return to cabinet responsibility and substitute open national discourse for the politics of concealment.
Personal animosities aside, Kadima and the Likud clearly have more common ground than either has with the radicalized Labor party. Both have effectively given up on Greater Israel, but insist that the major settlement blocs be retained. Their differences in relation to security and delineation of borders will be clarified only after Kadima determines what "Sharon's legacy" is.
However, Olmert, who has consistently and vigorously supported further major unilateral withdrawals, is now promoting a wait-and-see approach to a second disengagement. While more attractive to the electorate, this approach would leave open all his options for the future.
In such a context the composition of the next government will make all the difference. If the Likud is marginalized to the opposition and the new government is based on a coalition of Kadima and Labor/Meretz, that would represent a massive lurch to the Left - a far cry from the centrist regime, the polls infer, represents the vast majority of Israelis.
The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and is a veteran international Jewish leader (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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