Speaking to the Likud's Central Committee Tuesday night, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon maintained that while as prime minister he has "supreme responsibility" over public policy, he still believes that "major decisions" like his plan to retreat unilaterally from the Gaza Strip "should be brought to a democratic vote."
This is a rather ironic bit of demagoguery from Sharon who, since he announced his plan to retreat from Gaza amid reports that he is to be indicted on bribery charges, has prevented any constructive debate or vote on his plan in any of the legally constituted forums of government. Neither his cabinet nor the Knesset has been presented with the prime minister's radical plan of withdrawal under fire.
Sharon's plan to cut and run from all of Gaza and still to be determined portions of Judea and Samaria is being advanced against the backdrop of increasing collaboration among global terror organizations. Just this week Hamas chieftain Khaled Mashaal met with Hizballah overlord Hassan Nasrallah and the two agreed to tighten the collaboration between their terror groups. Hamas's reaction to Ahmed Yassin's death made it clear that Hamas is not an autonomous organization but rather a local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which itself is a major segment of Al Qaida.
Hamas communiques say nothing about the Palestinians. Rather they address themselves to the Arab and Islamic nation, much in the style of Al Qaida and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
But we can be certain that we will not have any debate or discussion of what awaits us the day after an Israeli withdrawal. A democratic vote on the issue, as Sharon indicated he supports, might have had a chance of bringing various aspects of the plan to the public's attention. But what Sharon forced down the throats of his Central Committee members Tuesday evening is not a vote at all. It is, at best, an opinion poll. And, like most opinion polls, it will be run like a popularity contest.
The Likud members who will be called on to vote on the withdrawal from Gaza will not be participating in a legal exercise in participatory democracy. They will not be voting in a referendum. A referendum must be legislated by the Knesset. And the short public discussion last December of a referendum made clear to Sharon that he would lose control of his agenda if he allowed democratically elected representatives to have a hand in structuring it. And so the idea was shelved.
In their upcoming vote, Likud members will not be participating in an exercise that is subordinate to any rules of electioneering. Since there is no legal basis for their vote, there will presumably be no legal restrictions on donations to one side or the other of the debate. There will be no limitations or prohibitions placed on foreign financing of commercials or billboards. There will be no obligation for anyone to disclose the sources of their funding. Quite simply, in the uncharted territory of this non-legal vote, there is a possibility that the votes can simply be bought.
What's to stand in anyone's way?
To ensure that the vote will follow a vacuous and short debate on the plan, where none of its obvious dangers will receive too much attention, the resolution passed on Tuesday calls for a vote to take place no more than three weeks after Sharon decides he wants it to take place.
Sharon's associates explained to the media on Wednesday that their plan is to have the vote carried out before Attorney General Menachem Mazuz has a chance to decide whether or not to indict the prime minister for accepting bribes.
Under the gun of a possible indictment, it is the prime minister's popularity that will be put to a vote. And the "opponent" that Sharon will be running against will not be his Likud rivals, who enjoy support among party members. Sharon will be running against the much despised State's Attorney Edna Arbel, who with her usual temerity and penchant for abuse of power, let it be known that she wants Sharon indicted.
Sharon's opponents within the Likud are deeply worried. Given that Sharon is making this a contest between himself and Arbel, they cannot get a critical mass of ministers willing to campaign against him.
Aside from that, if the party members vote against the plan, Sharon will not be the only loser. The Likud as a party will also be weakened. A party that paralyzes its leaders is a party that cannot be trusted by the voters.
And so ignored is the fact that the plan leaves Israel vulnerable not only to a more lethal threat of terrorism emanating from a Judenrein Gaza but also from the type of international pressure Sharon groundlessly claims a withdrawal will prevent. As is its wont, the media, always game for an Israeli retreat, is complicit in this conscious dumbing-down of the national discourse.
On Thursday Haaretz reported that US President George W. Bush will tell Sharon that, in exchange for leaving Gaza, the US supports the view that Israel will not have to retreat from all of Judea and Samaria. This does not mean, as Sharon would wish for us to believe, that the US supports Israeli annexation of blocs of settlement. To the contrary: The US still insists that Israel not build the security fence in areas beyond the 1949 armistice lines. If Sharon announces that he is adding ten neighborhoods to Ma'aleh Adumim and five to Efrat after he throws thousands of Israeli citizens from their homes in Gush Katif, the Americans will not accept this. The fact of the matter is that it is Israel that is scaling back its positions, while the US remains adamant about defending the Palestinians' full territorial demands.
The press tells us that the US has agreed to Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's conditions for his support of the plan. This is not true. Netanyahu stated that in return for an Israeli surrender in Gaza, the US must announce that it rejects the Palestinian demand for a so-called right of return that would allow millions of foreign-born Arabs opposed to Israel's existence to immigrate to Israel and demographically undo the state, or, at least create the conditions for a Lebanese-style civil war.
It would seem obvious that the US opposes a demand that would cause the destruction of Israel. And yet the US refuses to accept this condition. Rather, it is reportedly willing to say only that it supports Israel's right to be a Jewish state, which can mean a lot or nothing depending on the circumstances. In addition, the US is planning to announce that the so-called Palestinian refugees will have a right of free immigration to the Palestinian state. That is all very fair, but where exactly are these foreign Arabs to work? Who will be pressured to ensure their economic viability?
These would all be interesting issues to hear debated among our political leadership. Yet to go against the unilateral withdrawal plan means to go against Sharon in his time of victimization by the State's Attorney's office – and who could bear to do such a thing?
The sad truth is that both Sharon and Arbel are abusing their offices. By making the adoption of his plan before Mazuz decides on an indictment the central unifying principle of his political and diplomatic efforts, Sharon is lending credence to the view that his radical diplomatic platform is based largely on personal considerations. In so doing, Sharon is cheapening his office, damaging the credibility of our political institutions, undermining his party and delegitimizing his own leadership.
In publicly stating her view that a criminal indictment of an elected official is grounds for his forced resignation from office, Arbel is using her position as State's Attorney to advance a view that is not within the purview of her office and gravely undermines the democratic process. This is a patent abuse of power. It harms her office
by damaging the public trust in the fairness and equity of our justice system.
Sharon today is advancing a policy that is antithetical to the policies he advanced when he was elected chairman of Likud and prime minister just a bit over a year ago. Sharon ran for office on a commitment to fight relentlessly against terrorism and a refusal not merely to retreat under fire, but a refusal to conduct negotiations for as long as the Palestinians enabled terrorist cells to operate at any level.
The policy of retreat that Sharon now embraces was the platform of his election rival, Labor candidate Amram Mitzna. This policy was roundly rejected not only by Likud members, but by the rank and file of Israeli voters who served up Labor's greatest defeat in its history.
If Sharon respected democracy, as he claimed on Tuesday night, he would return his leadership mandate to the voters and ask to be reelected on the basis of his adoption of the 2003 Labor Party platform.
Of course he will not do this. But the fact that the prime minister is behaving improperly does not give our other elected officials the right to do so. It is the duty of our governing ministers and members of Knesset to require Sharon to present his plan to them for their oversight and approval before he concludes a deal with a foreign head of state. The Knesset attempted to force Sharon to do so a couple of weeks ago, but Sharon called the members' bluff by turning his presentation into a vote of confidence and proceeded to say absolutely nothing. Sharon has sidelined his government ministers by bypassing their calls for debate with ego-massaging meetings with headline-hungry ministers. This can no longer be countenanced.
Our elected officials have a sworn duty to participate in policymaking and to oversee and debate the policies of the government. The prime minister is not, in our parliamentary democracy, a supreme authority. He is the head of a government of empowered ministers and the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc in the Knesset. The Likud Central committee is not a politburo and the Prime Minister's office is not the Kremlin. It is time for our political leaders to call Sharon's bluff.
This is, after all, a democracy.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.