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A revolution has just taken place in Israel as close to the seat of power as you can get. The Knesset has started to enforce a dress code. The focus of attention at the opening of the winter session of the House on October 8 was not on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's address ("The road to an agreement is still long and it is rife with pitfalls and difficulties") but on the dress of parliamentary aides and the journalists covering the event.
More than a fashion statement, it was a political statement.
On the one hand, the Israeli parliament, once famous for its casualness, has now formally banned informal dress - including jeans and sandals. On the other, the "clothes encounters" - carefully recorded photos of young men changing their attire outside the House - show that the focus of attention is not really on the Knesset at all. Olmert's political future - which, at the risk of sounding dramatic, affects us all - is unlikely to be determined in the parliament surrounded by nicely clad staffers. His fate lies largely in the hands of Justice Eliahu Winograd - although his report into the Second Lebanon War now seems less likely to recommend asking the PM to resign - and in the hands of the judicial system slowly plowing its way through complaint after complaint. And, of course, on how the press decides to treat him throughout his police probes and diplomatic negotiations.
Olmert is all dressed up with somewhere to go: the November summit with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. And, unlike the situation in Knessets past, opposition to the possible future changes in the country's borders is vocal but not significant. Contrast this to the days when Yitzhak Rabin struggled to get the Oslo accords passed. (Among the opposition, incidentally, was MK Pini Badash, famed for wearing sandals no matter what the weather, who now would not be permitted to enter the House were he to venture there from his job as mayor of the southern town of Omer.)
Ehud Barak, a suit-and-tie guy, who went to Camp David as prime minister with a shaky minority coalition, now happily holds the defense portfolio and seems intent on keeping it, which requires keeping the Labor Party in the government. Talk about the ties that bind.
IN ANY case, political pundits are currently predicting that Olmert has little to fear from within the House. But it is cold outside.
When I served as the Post's (well-dressed-but-on-a-budget) parliamentary reporter covering the period from Oslo II to the 1999 Sharm e-Sheikh Memorandum there was, in addition to the fights (at one point literally) over the withdrawals and concessions, a dialogue over electoral reform.
As I noted at the time of the opening of the 14th Knesset in 1996, "No matter which party you voted for, chances are the person you put in the Knesset is a good-looking, politically active student who has yet to celebrate 25 birthdays." It was (and still is) difficult to draw a profile to fit the 120 MKs - which is as it should be in a democracy - but the profile of their parliamentary aides was far more standard. And it is these aides, now under orders to smarten up their acts, who do much of the House-work, often drafting bills based on populist stories in the press.
The question of whom you vote for does not always count for much - Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon as well as Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak all antagonized their voters by apparently changing direction Leftwards. (And they were all elected democratically, even using two different systems.)
The question is not who does the actual work or on what soon-to-be splintered platform a leader was elected but who has the right to force them out of power.
Worryingly enough, this is not in the hands of the electorate, or even the president. Lately it seems to be determined by journalists, jurists and NGOs who have taken the mandate upon themselves.
Israel Television's Politika talk show on October 9 held what passes for a debate on whether Olmert should step down in the face of the criminal investigations or - as Public Security Minister Avi Dichter among others has proposed - to suspend the investigations against him as long as he is in office. Haaretz journalist Daniel Ben-Simon, without so much as pausing for breath or to think what he was really saying, admitted that he wouldn't mind Olmert being allowed to keep the prime minister's post if he was doing as good a job as Sharon was doing while he was under investigation (and simultaneously disengaging from Gaza).
Ma'ariv columnist Ben-Dror Yemini was moved to describe the current situation as "selective persecution" rather than prosecution.
Just look at Olmert's No. 2. While the press has gone to town over the sex scandal case starring former president Moshe Katsav, Haim Ramon, convicted in August of an indecent act on a female soldier, is now a deputy prime minister raising trial balloons on the status of Jerusalem. Ramon - who last week married the woman who stood by him throughout his trial - forcibly French-kissed the soldier, incidentally, on the day that Lebanon II broke out, when you would have thought that cabinet members would have had difficulty finding time to poke their noses into someone else's business, let alone their tongues down someone else's throat.
Olmert at the Knesset's opening promised that in the coming session electoral reforms would be made and a constitution would be presented, lamenting: "Sixty years and no constitution." (Although the British have managed far, far longer without a codified document.)
Electoral reform, a written constitution and smartly dressed officials would certainly imply a change in the way the nation functions. But looks can be deceiving. I suspect much of the public would be willing to have smart politicians wearing an old-style kova tembel - "a fool's hat" - as long they had integrity.
It sometimes seems the country's leaders are too busy seeking figurative fig leaves to notice that life in the Garden of Eden is not what it used to be.
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