A few days after Ehud Barak defeated Binyamin Netanyahu in the 1999 elections, my mentor, David Bar-Illan, wrote in a column in this paper, "There is not a great deal of difference between Barak's vision of the final-status agreement with the Palestinians and that of Netanyahu's. Both are committed to an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, both consider the Jordan Valley Israel's strategic border, both oppose withdrawing to the 1967 armistice lines, and both have pledged to keep the settlements under Israeli control."
We know today that Barak lied to the Israeli people in the 1999 elections about all of these commitments and pledges. In his less than two years in office, Barak broke every single one of these campaign promises and by doing so brought the country to one of the most difficult strategic positions it has been in since the 1948 War of Independence. Then as now, the war being waged against us is a war on our homes.
But Barak was smart. He knew that if the 1999 elections were to focus on strategic national issues, he would lose. So he neutralized these issues by lying about his plans. In so doing he was able to run a campaign that centered on his opponent's political weaknesses and on inciting hatred and intolerance among Israel's various social and ethnic groups irrespective of the voters' views on the most important issues of Jerusalem, security, and negotiations with Yasser Arafat.
This month's elections will take place against a backdrop of a swiftly approaching upheaval in our region. On January 27, the day before we head for the polls, the UN weapons inspectors will submit their report on Iraqi noncompliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1441, setting the stage for a US-led invasion of Iraq.
Recent media reports have unveiled plans for the institution of a US military government in that enemy land after the fall of Saddam Hussein. This gathering storm places the Arab world, that is, our world at the precipice of a change that has the potential to be as strategically significant as the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, and will certainly be no less significant than the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Either way, the repercussions for Israel will be massive.
Unfortunately, this month's elections, like the 1999 elections, have focused not at all on the real, imminent, and fateful challenges facing our country and our next government. As in the 1999 elections, the leftist parties, from Meretz to Labor to Shinui, have dumbed down and, with the help of the media, silenced debate on national security. This issue, the most important issue facing our country, is now seen as one that the Likud would like to exploit merely in order to obfuscate the "real" issue of political corruption.
So we are told that the prime minister's focus on preparedness for the Iraq war is a political ploy. We are told that Likud candidates breathed a sigh of relief (!) at the massacre in Tel Aviv on Sunday hoping that the double bombing would force the media and their political opponents on the left to focus on security. We are told that, since there is "no solution" to the war with the Palestinians, that we should concentrate our attentions on which party will stick it to the ultra-Orthodox and provide higher welfare payments to more people. We are told, once again, that in the current security environment there is no difference between Left and Right. And, in a dramatic display of a nation unschooled by its recent history, we are showing the same naivete of tourists in New York City seduced by slicks into playing three-card monte. We are buying these lies, again.
In reality, today we are faced with one of the most complex and foreboding strategic environments in our history. The complexity of this environment stems not only from the growing Arab capabilities to employ weapons of mass destruction against Israel, but also from the media savvy of our enemies in portraying their aggressive designs against us as a response to "provocations" by Israel.
As our enemies from Iraq to Iran to Syria to Egypt steadily upgrade their military capabilities, they augment these capabilities and destabilize the regional power balance by continuing to fund, train, and sponsor terrorist organizations as their "strategic" and expedient weapon of choice against us.
At the same time, from the EU to the UN to US college campuses, terror apologists on the left work to steadily degrade our national legitimacy in a bid to prevent us from taking the necessary steps to prevent our national destruction. Our ability to safely navigate a course for surviving and even emerging stronger in this climate will be determined by the composition of our next government.
And yet, none of this is being discussed today in the final run-up to the general elections. The national agenda has been completely taken over by politically motivated scandalmongers and prejudiced political hacks that tell us that the only enemy we should worry about when casting our one ballot is the ultra-Orthodox or the settlers or the wealthy or the mafia. With scandals filling up the pages of our tabloids and fuelling our newscasts, we turn a blind eye to the elephant holding the AK-47 and Scud missile standing in the middle of the room.
The success of the leftist parties in dumbing down the elections agenda is even more startling than it was in 1999, given the fact that we have reverted, for the first time in 10 years, to the old one ballot system. Since 1996, we could get away with voting our prejudices, because we cast one vote for the government and one vote for the Knesset. Today we have no such luxury.
Today we have one vote. It is a blunt instrument. We cannot finesse it. We cannot qualify it and we cannot split it. Today we are given one choice. We can either choose a party that will vote to make Ariel Sharon prime minister or a party that will vote to make Amram Mitzna prime minister. We are voting for our representatives in the Knesset it is true, but more importantly, we are voting for our government that will be formed by the majority of the Knesset members elected. We might not like it. We might wish with all our heart that this was not the case, but no amount of denying the situation will change the reality that will greet us at the ballot box in two and a half weeks.
The opinion polls indicate that the party that has most benefited from the shallowness that has so far characterized our election campaign has been the anti-religious Shinui Party. Shinui, we are told, has picked up votes from disgruntled leftists and from disgruntled rightists. Given that most of Shinui's candidate list is comprised of former Meretz members, the leftist move to Tommy Lapid's party is not unexpected.
What is more surprising is that votes that were destined for the Likud have moved to Shinui. Right-wing voters who have decided to vote for Lapid's anti-religious list need to ask themselves why it is that they are supporting a party that would vote to make Amram Mitzna prime minister. And they need to reflect on the fate of every party, from Dash to The Third Way to the Center Party, that has run on a centrist platform. Such reflection will show that, in every case, the parties claiming to represent the center ceased to be centrist parties the moment the time came to form a government and that the parties' actual identities were again clarified when the governments they joined or did not join were challenged in no-confidence votes.
Corruption is the scourge of our historically dysfunctional political system as it has been for many young democracies. Much should and must be done in the years ahead to reform our political system to make our representatives more accountable to voters and to ensure that our elected representatives are in fact worthy of the honor of representing us in Knesset.
Unfortunately, as a result of our political system, our recoiling from scandal and our indignation over who drinks most from the public trough cannot be addressed at the ballot box on January 28. The only issue that this vote will decide is who forms the next government — Ariel Sharon or Amram Mitzna.
We are living in precarious times in a precarious region. We head for the polls in the midst of an unstinting and monstrous terrorist war being waged against us by the Palestinians. We will go to the polls against the backdrop of a rapidly approaching regional upheaval whose reverberations will be felt in every Arab land, and perhaps most directly in our own Jewish land.
Hopefully the 16th Knesset will enact political reforms that will advance the cause of accountable and clean government. But our next government will not be crowned a success or a failure by this benchmark. Our next government will be judged at the end of the day only by how it meets and handles the complex and daunting strategic challenges of our times. When we go to the polls we have but one question to ask ourselves: who will better navigate this storm — Amram Mitzna or Ariel Sharon. Our answer to that question and no other question will be the answer that determines our fate as a nation.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post