A plea from the people

MK Ben-Sasson underestimated the size of last night's historic rally in Tel Aviv. The issue is not just numbers, but principle.

rally 88 (photo credit: )
rally 88
(photo credit: )
At the Knesset session on the Winograd Report yesterday, Kadima MK Menachem Ben-Sasson said "We are not a 'rally' democracy. We listen to criticism but we rely on judgment, not the public's fickle moods." We must listen "not only to the 250,000 people who may show up for the rally [against the government] in Rabin Square tonight. We must listen to the residents of the North, the military personnel. They can sleep easy now." As it turned out, Ben-Sasson underestimated the size of last night's historic rally in Tel Aviv. But the issue here is not just numbers, but principle. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his backers in Kadima have taken every failure and criticism and attempted to transform them, judo-style, into another reason to stay in office. According to Olmert's logic, Winograd said we failed, so who better than us to fix the failures? The easy thing, Olmert says, would be to resign, rather than take responsibility. This is Orwellian. In the real world, resigning, not clinging to power, is how a leader takes responsibility for profound failures. Having turned the concepts of responsibility and accountability on their heads, Kadima is now trying to do the same for democracy as well. Surely, Ben-Sasson is right that no government should simply act on the basis of estimates of popular opinion. But this is a far cry from claiming the right to govern despite a near total lack of public confidence - not in a particular policy, but in the leadership's competence to safeguard the public interest. The striking thing about the rally last night was not just its size, but its scope. It was not a rally of a particular camp. The entire political spectrum, from Yossi Beilin to Effie Eitam, was there. The desire to be rid of Olmert has united bitter rivals, such as evacuated settlers and those who celebrated the destruction of settlements. In this context, the political Left deserves substantial credit. The likes of Meretz and our colleagues at Haaretz could have told the people to stay away from Rabin Square, on the grounds that the fall of Olmert might result in the rise of Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. They did not. On the contrary, they urged the public to go, knowing that the consequence could well be a government that, according to their lights, might move the country in the wrong direction. If there is a silver lining to this debacle, it is as the Winograd Committee's summary declared: "It is our belief that the larger the event and the deeper the feeling of crisis, the greater the opportunity to change and improve matters which are essential for the security and the flourishing of state and society in Israel." The depth of the crisis has indeed awakened the public from its slumber, caused it to set aside its deep and unfortunately warranted cynicism, and impelled it to lead on the road to recovery. The rally was a sign that our public still believes in the fundamental power of democracy - the power to unseat politicians that it rejects, even when those politicians seem determined to ignore its voice. How quickly the rally, and the vast public behind it, will obtain its wish cannot be known. The important thing is that public has not forgotten its voice, and continues to believe that the bedrock concept of democracy - that the people are sovereign - still holds.