Beyond one-man rule

Voters deserve a full range of policy proposals from the major parties.

arik sharon main 88 (photo credit: )
arik sharon main 88
(photo credit: )
The moment when everyone heard that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had been hospitalized after a stroke was one of those shocking, where-were-you-when-you-heard moments. Though Sharon appears to be undamaged, during those hours of uncertainty on Sunday night, it was impossible to avoid thinking of what would have happened had he been incapacitated. This incident has, of course, highlighted Sharon's age: at 77, considerably older than any previous prime minister standing for reelection and 12 years past the standard retirement age. But it has also set in sharp relief something that would have been considered beyond the realm of fiction just five years ago: that Ariel Sharon would not only become prime minister, but that he would seem so indispensable that it is hard to imagine anyone else running the country. This was so even before Sharon's resignation from the Likud and founding of Kadima. But now it is not just the premiership that seems dependent on Sharon, but the entire political system, since the largest party (according to polls) would presumably collapse without him. This was not the case in the Likud before Sharon left that party. Does our political system really rest on the shoulders of one man? If so, this is hardly a comfortable position for a democracy to be in. Yet it may not be as true as it seems. Israel is not the first democracy where a leader has seemed indispensable. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to four terms and died in office, few could imagine his vice president, Harry Truman, taking charge. He did, however, and historians might now make the case that it would have been better, given FDR's confidence in Stalin and the Yalta conference toward the end of the war, had Truman taken over earlier. The US was retroactively uncomfortable enough with FDR's political supremacy that it decided to set an eight-year term limit on the presidency. None of this is to make the case for Ehud Olmert, who is at this point is Sharon's legal and political heir apparent - or for term limits, given that it is still almost unheard of for our prime ministers to serve even one full term. But it is to say that democracies are more resilient than they may seem. Even Kadima, despite being just born and unlike previous "centrist" parties, represents a coherent spot in favor of unilateralism, in contrast to the Labor's pro-negotiation approach and the Likud's opposition to "disengagements" past and future. It is not inconceivable that it will survive after Sharon's departure from the political scene. Yet the Sharon health scare does underline the fragility of a politics that is based on personalities rather than on competing parties with established ideologies. By implementing disengagement and forming his own party, Sharon has shuffled the political deck. If he is reelected, he will provide continuity of sorts, though it is still unclear what his next move will be. But it is not too soon, even under such fluid conditions, for the parties that aspire to rule the country to decide what they stand for. Beyond slogans and general impressions, we have actually been told very little by the main candidates themselves about what they will do if elected to office. Even Amir Peretz, who is clearly identified with a statist economic approach, has not revealed a comprehensive set of economic proposals, aside from raising the minimum wage. We hope the Likud's new leader, who is being chosen in primary voting at this writing, will describe the full economic and diplomatic mandate his party is seeking. Kadima as well, should tell the voters what policies they are voting for, or whether their platform in effect consists of three words: whatever Sharon decides.