Sharansky’s democracy lesson

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This week last year, Israel was in the midst of a terrible war which its government refused to acknowledge. As rockets and missiles rained down on northern Israel, the Olmert government refused to call up IDF reservists or launch a ground campaign in Lebanon. Ignoring reality, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stood before the graduating class of the IDF's National Security College and announced that Israel had won.

 

Olmert said, "If the military campaign were to end today, already today it could be said with certainty that the face of the Middle East has changed… Now [Hizbullah] can never threaten this nation that it will fire missiles at it – because this nation is contending with these missiles and beating them."

 

The next morning, in an interview with the Associated Press, Olmert expanded on his delusion, declaring that the IDF had destroyed all of Hizbullah's military infrastructures in south Lebanon. Even before his interview hit the airwaves, Hizbullah opened its largest bombardment until that point. That day 231 missiles fell on Israel.

 

Olmert also used the AP interview to set out his post-victory plans. Israel's big win, he said, would pave the way for its withdrawal from Judea and Samaria.

 

Back then, even the generally supportive media attacked him for his bold-faced lies and for his willingness to discuss the notion of more Israeli withdrawals when the war itself was the direct result of previous Israeli retreats. When the war ended a week later in Israeli defeat, no one expected that a year later Olmert would still be in power.

 

But here we are, one year on, Olmert is still the prime minister, and he is still telling lies at National Security College graduation ceremonies. While last year he ignored the reality of war, at his commencement speech Tuesday, Olmert ignored the coming war. By his telling, there is no war on the horizon because, "In the north and in the east live millions of people who want tranquility, a quality of life and quiet – just like we do."

 

One year on, Olmert's government looks more stable than ever. As former minister Natan Sharansky, who now heads the Shalem Center's Institute for National Strategies, notes, "With nine percent approval ratings, Olmert's government is more stable than Binyamin Netanyahu's government was with 45-65 percent approval ratings."

 

Indifferent to public rejection, Olmert and his ministers pursue diplomatic and security goals that bear no relation to the regional and global realities facing Israel.

Today Olmert has one overriding policy objective: He wants to get his picture taken with the Saudis.

 

Since US President George W. Bush announced his intention to organize a regional conference of Arab leaders to pressure Israel to give land to the Fatah terrorist organization, the most urgent order of business for Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has been to convince the Saudis to come to the conference. To achieve this goal they are ready to give up Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. To achieve this goal they are willing to cut Israel in two to enable the Palestinians to have "territorial contiguity" between Gaza and Judea.

 

Furthermore, over the opposition of the defense establishment, Olmert and his ministers are willing to end their opposition to the US plan to supply Saudi Arabia with JDAM precision bombs. That Israel has no way of defending itself against JDAM assault, that the Saudi regime and military are crawling from head to tail with al-Qaida operatives is immaterial.

 

So excited are they at the prospect of meeting the Saudis, Olmert and his colleagues never seem to have considered the idea of demanding that the Saudis pay for the honor of meeting Israelis. They have made no demand that Saudi Arabia stop financing and distributing genocidal anti-Semitic propaganda worldwide. They have not demanded that the Saudis end their economic boycott of Israel. They just want the Saudis to say "cheese."

 

The Saudi photo-op policy is not the only delusional policy the Olmert government is advancing. There is also Defense Minister Ehud Barak's new missile defense plan. This week Barak announced that within three years, he wishes to develop and deploy a missile shield that will block everything from Palestinian Kassam rockets to Iranian Shihab ballistic missiles.

 

Although Israel needs a missile defense system, the plan that Barak outlines is sheer fantasy. First, there is no chance that Israel will be able to build and deploy a comprehensive missile defense within three years. Second, there is no chance than any system will be able to defend Israel in the eminently foreseeable event that it is attacked by thousands of missiles in a joint Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian missile offensive.

 

Barak claims that his missile defense system will enable Israel to vacate Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights. But this is ridiculous. If last summer's war proved anything, it proved that to prevent missile attack, Israel must control territory and actively destroy its enemies' missile arsenals in their silos. Hizbullah would never have been able to launch its war if Barak hadn't withdrawn the IDF from Lebanon in 2000.

 

A COMMON thread runs through Olmert and Barak's fairytales. The Israeli public has no role to play in either of them. Both policies start from the assumption that the interests and opinions of the public are irrelevant and its participation in crafting and implementing national policies is undesirable. For Olmert and Barak, the citizens of Israel are mere spectators in their government-produced reality TV shows.

 

Many factors contribute to the fact that Olmert's unpopular government is able to cling to power and behave as if there is nothing wrong. But the main cause for the government's longevity is the deep crisis which plagues Israel's democratic system.

 

In Sharansky's view, there are two causes for the current crisis: Political leaders perceive their positions as career opportunities rather than opportunities to serve the public; and the public doesn't demand that its elected leaders reassess their perception.

 

This state of affairs is disastrous because the main strength of democratic societies is their ability to embrace the individual strengths of their citizens to advance the national interest. As Sharansky explains, "A national strategy must be based on the values of its nation. Israel is predicated on two core values: the fact that it is a Jewish state and the fact that it is a free society."

 

For the past generation, Israel's leaders have underrated the strength of the county's core values. "Already back in the 1980s, Shimon Peres was saying that the nation is weak. Barak said the same thing before he went to the Camp David summit [in 2000]. Ariel Sharon said the same thing before the withdrawal from Gaza. But during last summer's war we saw that the opposite was true. The nation is strong. Our leaders are weak. And today our leaders continue to base their policies on the same mistaken perception that the nation has no strength."

 

It is no doubt true that the Israeli public's repeated willingness to elect weak leaders contributes to our leaders' low estimation of our strength. For democracies to work, the people must choose leaders capable of advancing their national interests. And such leaders are not men and women who promise the public utopias. Such leaders are men and women who look reality in the face and ask the nation to work with them in advancing national goals in accordance with the reality on the ground.

 

In the next general elections, Israeli voters will be asked to choose between three alternative leaders – Olmert, Barak and Netanyahu. As Sharansky sees it, Netanyahu is the only one with a realistic understanding of global realities and a tru
e appreciation for the strength of Israeli democracy. Netanyahu's economic reforms, which fuelled Israel's prosperity, were predicated on the liberal view that national wealth is created by a nation's citizenry, not by the government. Unlike Barak and Olmert, Netanyahu grasps that the key to national strength is the empowerment of the nation.

 

WHILE NATIONAL elections seem light years away, in 10 days, Netanyahu will stand for reelection as the leader of Likud. He is facing off in the Likud primaries against Moshe Feiglin, who heads the Jewish Leadership faction.

What is striking about these primaries is the similarity between Feiglin and Barak and Olmert. Although Feiglin comes from the post-Zionist Right rather than the post-Zionist Left, like Barak and Olmert, he bases his post-Zionist vision for the country on fantasy. Whereas in Olmert and Barak's leftist visions Israel has no enemies, in Feiglin's vision, there is no outside world at all. There is no US administration. There is no European Union. There is no United Nations. There is no media. There is nothing. No worries. Feiglin will just tell the West and the Arabs to leave us alone because this is our land and it's our God given right to be here, and everyone will understand and no one will bother us anymore.

 

Sharansky's main problem with Feiglin's candidacy is that if he makes a strong showing he will frighten away disaffected Kadima, Yisrael Beitenu and Shas voters who do not ascribe to his post-Zionist, religious worldview. While this is true enough, it is not the central problem with Feiglin.

 

The Zionist ideal which Feiglin, like Olmert and Barak, insists on replacing is the only viable path to ensure the survivability of the State of Israel. It is the Zionist vision, which postulates a free Jewish nation state, where the sum total of creativity and wisdom of both democratic institutions and the Jewish traditions of faith in human freedom can build on one another, which guarantees that the core values and inherent strengths of the nation will be brought to bear in moving the country forward.

 

Sharansky himself believes strongly that Zionism is the core of Israeli strength. As he puts it, "As a Jewish nation state, we have the will power of a people that returned to Zion and built a free country. These are powerful foundations for a national strategy."

 

But to bring these strengths to bear, the nation must understand that it must defend itself from poor leaders. "Democracy isn't only leaders. It is also the willingness of the people to protect democracy. We can't expect for the prime minister to just get up and resign. The public needs to pressure government ministers and members of Knesset. Today they do not feel that they will pay a particularly heavy price for their support of this terribly unpopular government."

 

Democracy is based on people making choices. The success of democracies is ensured only when people choose wisely and embrace their power and responsibility as citizens.

 

 

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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