In praise of smoke-filled rooms

Sometimes a degree of ambiguity and some old-fashioned politicking is preferable to hard-and-fast rules.

One third into the period between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "Big Bang," in which he broke with Likud and established his Kadima list, and the March 28 election date, some of the outlines of Israel's transitional politics are becoming visible. The inadequacy of our quasi-constitutional "Basic laws" has again been demonstrated in answering the question of who stands in for the prime minister when he is incapable of fulfilling his duties. The decision to have Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stand in for the three hours or so that Sharon is expected to be incapacitated by anesthesia today seems obvious, but required last-minute negotiations between Sharon, the cabinet secretary and Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz. It's not as if the problem never arose before. Two decades ago, under the pressures of a war in Lebanon gone wrong, Likud prime minister Menachem Begin quit abruptly, saying "I can't anymore," and retired into several years of clinically depressive seclusion. It took some time for the political community to settle on Yitzhak Shamir as his somewhat lackluster successor, but the opportunity was not taken to legislate some constitutional clarity on the mechanics of succession. The same of course was true with the illnesses of Labor prime ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir. Latter-day critics of Israel's early party politics often compare them to the Bolshevism of the Soviet Union. I think that "Byzantine" would be more apt. The constitutional lacunae in regard to succession were not simply happenstance; clarity was purposely avoided to give politicians time to rearrange the division of power necessitated by the death or incapacitation of a leader. WHEN THIS "simple" issue is considered, it becomes clear that it's not so simple - and not merely about succession. Should a Levi Eshkol with a known heart condition, a Golda Meir who slunk out at midnight to undergo treatment for cancer, and a Menachem Begin who was hospitalized for a heart attack in the middle of the 1977 election and reportedly had a long history as a manic-depressive, have been permitted to run at the heads of their respective parties? And if the answer is "maybe not," who should be the one to disqualify them, and on what evidence? Plainly, there is obviously much constitutional work to be done on this issue. Sharon is also being hotly criticized for his "dictatorial" tendencies in insisting that he alone will determine the Kadima list. He has often been called "the last Mapainik." The truth is, however, that even when David Ben-Gurion headed Mapai in its worst days, he did not determine the makeup of its Knesset list himself; that job was relegated to the denizens of the party's smoke-filled back room, who spoke for the different constituencies of the internal Mapai partnership. Many, including myself, would cluck-cluck over the scandalously undemocratic nature of that arrangement, but we would be forced to admit that the quality of candidates chosen was far superior to the lists produced by the party primaries and central committees of the past decade or so. Sharon clearly wants to remain in control of the party he gave birth to. But he will soon find that it works only with the least of the backbenchers who owe their place on the list to his decision; the big names will not kowtow indefinitely. I have elsewhere referred to Sharon's power vis- -vis the luminaries he has attracted for his list as being based on his ability to deliver the support of the Bush administration for the continuing division of the territories even without a Palestinian partner. So far, Sharon has not actually delivered that sort of support. Two areas in which Sharon;s dictatorial control of Kadima can be critical for the future of Israel are the recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the Israeli Arabs. Neither of these population groups, which together constitute over one third of the electorate, have ever shared governmental power in any meaningful way. It's high time that they be invited in. That is especially true for the Arabs. Sharon is in a position to pick pro-Israel candidates to compete with the Arab party politicos who have for decades given precedence to the PLO and Israel's other Arab enemies.