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It would be a monumental understatement to describe our current political condition as chaotic. Over the past year even some of Ariel Sharon's supporters became distressed with his heavy-handed style of leadership and inclination to behave as though the government was his personal fiefdom.
Now the prime minister has taken the unprecedented initiative of destabilizing his own Likud Party in order to create a new party comprised exclusively of hand-picked candidates unequivocally committed to supporting whatever future decisions he may decide to implement.
In fact, in his Likud resignation speech Sharon did not even relate to the political reasons for such a radical move. Instead he concentrated on the simplistic theme that "Life in Likud was unbearable." He also continued shamelessly misleading people. Until recently he had emphatically proclaimed that there would be no further unilateral withdrawals unless the Palestinians dismantled the terrorist infrastructure. Yet in his resignation speech he blandly announced his intention of initiating further withdrawals of unspecified "isolated" settlements "in accordance with the road map," signaling that his previous undertaking should not be taken seriously.
One is thus entitled to assume that Sharon deliberately avoided delineating policy differences because it was much easier to brand his former party colleagues as right-wing extremists. Indeed, one of Sharon's senior aides went so far as to proclaim that he would disclose his real intentions only after the elections.
IT IS unprecedented for a democratic leader to seek to destroy the governing party in order to dispense with the irritation of being required to obtain approval from his colleagues before embarking on new policies.
Despite the "big bang" brought about by Sharon and Amir Peretz, the political atmosphere in the nation remains suffused with cant and hypocrisy. Most political parties are riddled with corruption. Indeed quite a few Knesset members would undoubtedly be facing criminal prosecution if they resided in other Western countries. Politicians of all shades of opinion shamelessly contradict themselves from one day to the next and make misleading or false pronouncements transparently designed to position themselves as politically centrist in order to ensnare voters.
In such a foul structure it is hardly surprising that Israelis have become utterly cynical about politicians and their unfulfilled promises. After all, Yitzhak Rabin was elected to office as a hawk and ended up a pristine dove; Ehud Barak posed as a tough former general, yet offered to give away the family silver at Camp David; and of course Ariel Sharon was elected on the basis of rejecting Amnon Mitzna's plan, then went further to the left than Mitzna himself.
Yet in relation to the future most Israelis have now rejected the illusions associated with both the Oslo Accords and Greater Israel. They seek pragmatic, middle-of-the road leaders who they hope will promote peace with security.
PARADOXICALLY, with the exception of the Moshe Feiglin extremist faction whose natural habitat should be in one of the radical right-wing parties, Likud was the center. The party recognized that in a comprehensive peace agreement isolated settlements in densely Arab-populated areas would have no future unless they remained under Palestinian sovereignty - inconceivable at this time. De facto they had also become reconciled to an eventual demilitarized Palestinian state.
The matters of contention between Sharon and the Likud rebels centered on whether territorial concessions should be made unilaterally or, as most Likud supporters preferred, only after the terrorist infrastructure had been dismantled. There were also differences with respect to final borders. All these tactical issues could have been resolved within the Likud framework.
In the unlikely event that the Kadima Party achieves full control of the new government Sharon would effectively be in a position to run the country as a one-man band. In the more likely scenario in which Kadima garners the largest number of votes but lacks a majority, Labor would be the most likely coalition partner. But Labor today is headed by a political demagogue and super-dove with no experience in government, security or foreign affairs. His views are closer to Meretz than his own party, and he has expressed a nostalgic desire to resurrect the Oslo Accords.
To top it off, the Finance Ministry could be controlled by an outdated trade union apparatchik who would decimate the economy. The addition to Labor of Avishay Braverman, a talented economist and genuine Zionist, is an asset. But he will be a mere fig leaf unless Peretz delegates economic policy to him, an unlikely eventuality if one considers the crude dictatorial manner in which he managed the Histadrut.
IT IS highly unlikely that the majority of potential Kadima voters would knowingly support a coalition in which concessions to the Palestinians exceeded the currently prevailing consensus. Nor would they endorse as a coalition partner the most radicalized Labor party in Israel's history - a party seeking to recycle the discredited Oslo Accords. And many would also regard as bizarre Sharon's agreement to appoint Shimon Peres, the architect of Oslo, as "minister for peace affairs."
The support for Kadima, therefore, essentially flows from a blind "trust" in Sharon. But electing Sharon without extracting policy guidelines would institutionalize the Napoleonic inclinations of a prime minister whose track record already bears the hallmark of an emerging Israeli version of the personality cult. Moreover if, for any reason, Sharon was no longer able to continue in office, the "party" could disintegrate.
The ugliest aspect of the current imbroglio is that, rather than issues, the political process has degenerated into a competition of jobs for the boys. Policies have been supplanted by revolving doors and pledging allegiance to the leader most likely to guarantee cushy jobs. And the major players pay false lip service to the center and obfuscate their real intention. The collapse of political morality is further exemplified by those Sharon supporters who remain Likud members for the sole purpose of acting as a Trojan horse, even boasting of their intention to destabilize the Likud primaries.
The people of Israel are entitled to demand that all candidates outline policies - economic as well as security - instead of cynically lying in an endeavor to obtain votes under false pretences. The forthcoming polls should be a referendum on the future.
To this end, President Moshe Katsav hit the nail on the head when he called on parties and political leaders not to conceal their policies but to "present the voters with clear, responsible positions on all issues that are in the balance, including the state's borders" and urged them to commit themselves to implementing their electoral promises. As of now, his appeal seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
ISRAEL stands at the crossroads. It is impossible to predict the outcome of the elections. But irrespective of who wins, genuine democracy amounts to more than elections. Israelis must employ people-power to demand transparency and honesty, and insist that the incoming government implements governance.
If the corrupt and undemocratic trends are not reversed, the very foundations of civic government are threatened and we are truly on the road to becoming a banana republic.
The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and is a veteran Jewish international leader.