Interesting Times: Where's our Sarkozy?

Livni needs more ambition, Netanyahu needs less.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
The most powerful moment at Kikar Rabin last week was the moment of silence. It is hard to describe the feeling of being in a crowd of over 100,000 people that is not moving a muscle, not making a sound, in honor of the 119 soldiers and 44 civilians who lost their lives in the Second Lebanon War. Unfortunately, the moment was also emblematic. The sense of helplessness in the face of death, in retrospect, recalls the wider national helplessness to reclaim a political system that feels like it has been hijacked. The most fundamental premise of our democracy - that the people have the power to reject and replace their government - is being called into question. The truth, however, is that the government is clinging to power because the protest against it, in relative terms, fizzled. If the polls indicate that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has an approval rating of only 3 percent, there should have been 500,000 people in the square. Had they come, the government would not have survived three no-confidence votes in the Knesset this week. This is especially so since the protest, unlike many others, truly crossed political and religious camps. So why didn't more people show up? ONE COMMON explanation is that much of the public dreads the expected alternative to Olmert, the return of Binyamin Netanyahu. It is not clear, however, how Netanyahu's impressive showing in the polls can be squared with the theory that he is so widely rejected, particularly in comparison to Olmert. Second, the camp that is most strongly against Netanyahu, the Left, strongly endorsed and participated in the anti-Olmert rally. "Bibiphobia," as some call it, does not seem to explain the rally's fizzle. The more likely reason is that most Israelis, however much they reject Olmert, have become so disillusioned with the current crop of leaders that they see no point in shuffling the political deck. According to this thinking, if all the politicians are corrupt and all their ideologies have been discredited, what's the point in torturing people with new elections? Israeli politics is at a crossroads surprisingly similar to that revealed in this week's presidential elections in France. Nicolas Sarkozy won because he managed to represent change. Republican Newt Gingrich thinks that Sarkozy's victory holds lessons for his party in the 2008 elections. "In France," he writes, "voting for the change meant voting for the party in office, but not the personality in office. And voting to keep the old order meant voting for the opposition, not for the incumbent party." The French saw that Jacques Chirac and Segolene Royal, while seeming to represent political opposites, both - along with almost every leading French politician except Sarkozy - went to the same elite schools. The people chose to break from the haughty mind-set that they blamed for French corruption, stagnation and insecurity. AS IT HAPPENS, there is no single politician in our system who quite embodies Sarkozy's image as a brash outsider. Tzipi Livni comes across as a different sort of leader: not corrupt or driven only by personal ambition. But she seems to lack the forceful personality necessary to win elections, hold power and drive through reforms. Binyamin Netanyahu has something of Sarkozy's evident drive, and a reputation as a reformer, but is also identified with the ideological battles and tainted politics that Israelis want to escape. The lesson for those who seek to replace Olmert is that they, regardless of party and ideology, must represent change - not just in this or that policy, but in our political class and system. Olmert's greatest ally is public disillusionment; so long as no one can puncture that, he will not be unseated. To do that, Livni seems to need an ambition transplant, and Netanyahu an ambitionectomy. Perhaps the Livni we saw offer an aborted half-resignation last week was thrust into the spotlight before her time. But that time will come only if she finds the gumption to leave the government. Then she could develop and unveil her plan to change the system, thereby demonstrating that she can think like a prime minister, not just like a foreign or justice minister. Netanyahu, as well, needs to show that he is the candidate of reform - not just of the economy, which he demonstrated as finance minister, but of politics. This would not be a total stretch, because Netanyahu was the champion of the now-repealed system of directly electing the prime minister. Though that reform was discredited, so is the old-new system that bracketed it. What could fly now is what the blue-ribbon Megidor Committee recommended, namely, moving toward district elections for one-third to half of the Knesset. MEGIDOR'S RECOMMENDATION has widespread popular and academic support, its main obstacle being the perception that it will never pass the Knesset. This is a perfect opportunity for Netanyahu and other candidates to take the side of better government, against the Knesset. District elections are not a panacea, since they would not necessarily eliminate corruption or improve decision-making at the top. What they would do is give citizens greater confidence in their government because they would have Knesset members accountable to them and not just to party bosses - or worse, not accountable at all. It is almost impossible to imagine, for example, directly elected Knesset members ignoring the public mood with such impunity as our legislators are doing now. Our friends and enemies abroad have expressed open admiration for Israel's robust exercise in self-criticism. They are right; but real strength comes from mustering as much courage to fix mistakes as has been shown in identifying them. Our next prime minister will likely be whoever the public feels has the vision, skills and drive to restore confidence in our political system.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11