Ariel Sharon and Israel’s unique democracy

Jim Lederman
12 January 2006

Ariel Sharon’s battle for life has been accompanied by a wave of commentary assessing the implications of his departure from the political scene for Israel’s elections on 28 March and for the prospects of peace and security in the region. What has been missing is any attempt to place the soldier-politician’s career in the context of the political development of the country he served for more than half a century.

More particularly, the dawn of the post-Sharon era is an opportunity to identify the unique political character of the Israeli body-politic as it has developed over the last generation – a character that Sharon himself has both helped to shape and been forced to adapt to, and whose form of governance arguably represents an innovative formation in the world’s democratic politics. Whoever replaces Sharon as Israel’s prime minister, this is a reality likely to endure.

Also on Ariel Sharon and Israel in openDemocracy:

Eyal Weizman, “The politics of verticality” – in eleven parts (April-May 2002)

Eyal Weizman, “Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation” – in three parts (September 2003)

Eric Silver, “Israel’s political map is redrawn” (November 2005)

Jane Kinninmont, “Life after Sharon: Palestinian prospects”
(January 2006)

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Israel is different

The idea of viewing Israel as a distinct political species is not in itself strange. The number of anomalies at times seems countless. Five examples suffice to make the point.

First, in few countries are issues of the spirit and of the mundane world, or discourses of victimhood, so interwoven into day-to-day life.

Second, about 11% of the country’s residents (ultra-Orthodox Jews) reject the right of the state to exist as a Jewish state; and a further 16% (predominantly Muslim Arabs) are either ambivalent or openly hostile towards the state.

Third, since its founding in 1948, the country’s population has expanded from 800,000 to 6.9 million – a higher rate of increase than anywhere else in the world. More than two-thirds of Israel’s residents are either immigrants or first and second-generation descendants of people who had previously lived in non-democratic states. Yet few countries practise democracy with such intensiveness.

Fourth, Israel has undergone a range and depth of experiences that exceeds even that of the ill-fated Weimar republic in interwar Germany. Externally, it has faced existential threats from neighbouring states’ armies, and global political stereotyping that has affected its foreign relations, trade and commerce. Its battles with these states left it with heavy war debts (the Yom Kippur war of October 1973 alone cost two years of Israel’s GDP). It has had to cope with several bloody insurgencies that have cost thousands of lives.

Fifth, Israel’s domestic experience has been convulsive. It has suffered from bouts of high unemployment, economic collapse, a growing gap between rich and poor, deep cultural divisions, a breakdown in the public’s trust in politicians and political institutions, an increase in political corruption, the collapse of a (socialist) aristocracy, and the rise of a neo-fascistic nationalist movement led by Rabbi Meir Kahane. And yet, unlike Weimar, Israel has not collapsed.

No less remarkable is the fact that six separate, independent polls taken over the past three years, during which the second (“al-Aqsa”) intifada and unemployment were at their height, found that 82% of Israelis were happy with their lives – and one poll found that 89% of the population stated that they would want to live nowhere else.

At first glance, these data would appear to indicate that Israelis are suffering from mass delusion and an inability to face reality. However, other data show convincingly that Israelis are happy because they believe that they are in control of their lives. Central to that belief is the nature of the popular democracy the country’s citizens have evolved. The withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005 was arguably the greatest test ever of the efficacy of the Israeli democratic system.

In order, then, to understand the changing dynamics of Israeli political life, including the decision over Gaza and Ariel Sharon’s role in it, it is necessary to look at the history of Israeli self-governance as well as the trajectory of the man himself.

The politics of fragmentation

Zionism began as a revolutionary movement designed not only to liberate Jews from the predations of their anti-Semitic neighbours in the diaspora, but also to free them from the narrow-mindedness of the Rabbinic and Hasidic aristocracies, and the imperiousness of the lay oligarchies that controlled Jewish communal life.

The Zionist congresses at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries created the first mass, organised popular political Jewish movement since the advent of Hasidism in the 18th century. The system for self-governance that was chosen was based on the principle of proportional representation. This seemed to the founders of the movement to be the fairest of all systems, but it also encouraged all the ideological groupings within the movement to launch mass membership drives – partly to resist the threat of the bundists, the rival (socialist) mass movement which believed that the future of the Jews lay in accommodating themselves to the states in the diaspora where they lived.

However, following the establishment of the state, the choice to continue the use of proportional representation proved to be disastrous. Small, narrowly-focussed minority groups, whether parties themselves or factions within parties, found that when multi-party governing coalitions were formed, they could hold the balance of power and extract benefits for their members that were disproportionate to the size of their electoral power. Personal opportunism, corruption and cronyism grew.

The system continued to work, however, so long as the socialists managed to maintain their overall hegemony. The Labour movement’s power, though, began to collapse with the mass immigration of Jews from north Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The (Ashkenazi) European-born socialists’ disdain for these (Sephardi) Jews from Arab countries, their preoccupation with satisfying the demands of their comparatively privileged cohorts, left them with little time or interest to deal with the absorption of the newcomers. In time, the newcomers launched a few, minor political rebellions, but these came to nought.

This political settlement started to change in 1976 when the military hero Ariel Sharon, seeking a place for himself in the political firmament, forged a five-party coalition under the leadership of Menachem Begin – Likud (Consolidation) – as the first effective opposition to Labour’s hegemony. In 1977, this new grouping won a smashing electoral victory. Yitzhak Ben Aharon, a long-term senior Labour figure, said on the night of the party’s defeat: "The people have made a mistake". But the people had not made a mistake: they were punishing Labour for its mistakes. Formal democracy had finally come of age. Rule was no longer a right.

After 1977, Likud could have reformed the political system. But it chose not to. All it wanted was a share of the political spoils it had been denied for so long.

For the next quarter-century, Israel was divided evenly into two political blocs, led respectively by Labour and Likud; in addition, there were two “satellite” blocs composed of Arab parties and ultra-Orthodox parties. The common use of the terms "rightist" and “leftist" to describe the Likud- and Labour-led blocs is a misnomer. The Likud bloc was made up of a jumble of dissident, nationalist social democrats, religious ultra-nationalists, economic populists, and Bolshevik-style Eretz Israel supporters who believed in central planning and massive state intervention on behalf of the settlers who had come to live in the occupied territories. Within the bloc there was only a small rump of classic, European-style liberal capitalists who believed in free markets. Labour’s group had long lost its original egalitarian underpinnings and had become the champion of power groups such as big business and the trade unions.

The only thing that united each of the two main blocs was their mutual loathing for members of the other bloc; and their individual claims to ideological righteousness. There were often major voting shifts between parties within each bloc, but the floating vote between the blocs never amounted to more than 50,000-90,000. Within this framework, Ariel Sharon became the ultimate insider’s outsider. While he was a high-ranking member of most governments and pursued his political initiatives with tenacity, he appeared to have no overall vision or ideology.

With the exception of a short period following the state’s foundation, public policy in Israel was decided not by elections, nor even by a common ideology shared by all the coalition members; it was, rather, the haphazard product of long and intensive inter-party coalition negotiations and conflicting trade-offs that followed the actual voting. Short-term political opportunism was rampant. For example, Ariel Sharon was not the father of the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, as is often claimed; he was only the stepfather. The real father was Shimon Peres (who joined Sharon’s Kadima [Forward] party after his ousting from the Labour Party leadership by Amir Peretz), who set the precedent by agreeing to allow settlement in the West Bank in 1977 – in a vain attempt to prevent Labour’s defeat at the polls.

Thus, while Sharon quickly won the sobriquet "the bulldozer", his actions were little different from those of most of the politicians around him. The only real difference between him and most of those in government was the public bravado and the extreme self-promotion he brought to his job.

As the sectional demands by minor coalition partners grew, so too did government instability. Intra-party factionalism, already endemic, began to grow further within the central committees of each of the major parties. As a result of proportional representation, party branch heads and party "vote contractors" with as few as fifty supporters felt free to threaten Knesset members unless the minor political bosses’ demands for favours such as government jobs or building permits for family members and cronies were met. Sharon was in the centre of it all and carefully tracked every new political manoeuvre, and the strengths and weaknesses of everyone around him.

Recurring political, economic and social crises led to deterioration in support for representative government; turnout in elections fell from 79.3% in 1996 to 78.7% in 1999 and 67.8% in 2003. The public status of politicians has also plummeted, with their approval rating at times falling below 20%. The Knesset election due on 28 March 2006 is the seventeenth since the founding of the state (and the sixth in fourteen years); they have produced no fewer than thirty governments and thirty-nine finance ministers.

A question of power

Two largely forgotten events in the early 1970s were to have a profound effect on the evolution of Israeli democracy.

The first was in 1972, when a small group of dedicated civil servants proposed a new strategy for an Israeli economy dominated by cartels and facing wide-ranging economic boycotts. They persuaded the government of Golda Meir to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the then European Economic Community (EEC), the first of several such trade agreements; as a result Israel began lowering its massive tariff barriers, and the Israeli economy gradually became globalised.

However, no attempt was made to re-educate an Israeli public accustomed to government protection and the politicians’ favourite slogan s’moch alai (trust me). It was left to cope alone with the impact of free markets and forced to learn to make major decisions independently of governments. The pragmatism that ensued shifted Israelis away from ideologically-based politics and towards mass "bourgeoisification". This sowed the seeds of the political revolution of 1977.

The second event occurred in 1974, in the wake of the cataclysmic Yom Kippur war. Motti Ashkenazi, a reserve army officer who had commanded the only Israeli bastion on the Suez canal that had not been overrun by advancing Egyptian forces, began a sit-down strike outside the prime-minister’s office demanding that the government explain why Israel had been unprepared for the Egyptian assault.

The government was eventually forced to appoint a commission of inquiry which – although it shied away from close investigation of many core issues – created two precedents: never before had an Israeli government been made accountable for its actions (or inactions), nor had any individual been able to garner sufficient public support to force the government to bow to the popular will.

After 1974, Motti Ashkenazi’s example would be a model used by others to – as they saw it – save the country from self-destruction. The personal characteristics the public required of the individual or small group concerned were always the same. They had to be:

  • loyal and upstanding citizens
  • having a particular expertise in the subject
  • having a personal stake in the outcome of the debate
  • having personal integrity
  • addressing an issue that affected the majority of the population, not just a sectional group
  • having no known public or party affiliation
  • being willing to suffer some sort of personal hardship on behalf of the cause
  • being able to propose a clear action requiring only a “yes/no” response.

The scenario that follows this cycle of protest has become routine. The celebrity-hungry, competitive Israeli press investigates the individual or group before deciding whether the question being posed to the Israeli public merits inclusion in their opinion-poll surveys. If it does, the press conducts intensive interviews around the proposition with politicians, academics, professional experts, and the general public.

The gradual result of this process – usually after six to eight months of debate – is that around 60% or more of the public coalesces in favour or in opposition to the proposition. The “yes/no” format means that this consensus tends to be formed after different sections of the public with widely divergent views come to a shared view even if their rationales are totally different (for example, people whose primary concern was variously security, the economy, demography, or government spending could agree a single position on the withdrawal from Gaza).

Here are four examples of how the “proposition” system has worked:

  • 1974: Motti Ashkenazi, reserve army officer and veteran of the Suez canal attack – “should the government and the general staff be held accountable for their actions?”
  • 1984: Michael Bruno, renowned economist – “will you accept temporary pay cuts, a freeze in government spending and a freeze in prices in return for ending hyperinflation running at 485% per year?”
  • 1997, four mothers – “do you want to evacuate Lebanon so that our sons in the army will not be killed?”
  • 2001: Uzi Dayan, retired major-general and former head of the national security council – “do you want to protect yourselves against terrorist attacks by disengaging from the Palestinians by building a separation fence?”

It is significant that in each case, a ruling prime minister who opposed the proposition lost the next election. It was inevitable, however, that such a back-from-the-brink method of setting public policy in the face of government inertia could not last forever.

A new democratic model

It is difficult to say precisely when the Israeli political system changed forever, but the event most likely occurred in 2002, when the second intifada was at its bloodiest and the economy had collapsed to such an extent that Israel could no longer borrow money abroad. In this period, while the government and military searched for technical solutions to national perimeter defence, the Israeli public for the first time came to realise that it could and should control its own destiny.

The consequence was a shift to a new form of popular governance – combining the addiction to opinion-polling and an agreed set of criteria for who has the right to set the question with a demand for a strong leader capable of vanquishing sectional and special interests that try to undermine the popular verdict. In short, Israelis now demand that representative government should be managerial and directive; decision-making is so important a task that it must be undertaken on the basis of a national consensus.

A BBC poll published by Gallup International in September 2005 surveying attitudes in sixty-eight countries is revealing of Israelis’ distinctiveness in this regard. Far more Israelis trust their military and police to protect them from physical danger, their intellectuals to offer ideas and critiques, and even their business leaders to run their economic life, than do citizens of other countries. Israelis identify strongly with the fate of their state, place a high priority on their nationality, and (most important of all) believe that they can act to change their lives.

These trends help explain why the old, two-bloc, two-satellite political system has in the past three years largely been replaced by one where a single mainstream bloc that includes segments of the weakened and disunited older parties (including, today, Sharon’s new Kadima party and some newly-active public figures) is surrounded by three strongly-defined satellites (Arab, ultra-Orthodox, and Eretz [Land of] Israel) and a few loose fragments. What unites the hard core (although certainly not all) of the main bloc is that it has rejected ideology as a basis for political decision-making. In its place has come a search for effective, pragmatic, popular methods for making public policy.

It is clear that not all politicians have recognised the new reality. Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu and Labour’s Amir Peretz seek to court "the centre" – a term with almost metaphysical connotations; but both continue to present their project in older, ideological terms. Both too use scare tactics, claiming that their opponents will bring poverty (Peretz) or insecurity (Netanyahu) if elected. Such approaches may have worked in a nation traumatised by the holocaust and unending wars with Arab states; they may be less effective in a new Israeli political world based on voters’ self-confidence to set policy.

This is indicated by polls suggesting that even after Ariel Sharon’s strokes, support for his Kadima party has grown (even though the party has yet to issue any clear platform) while that for Labour and Likud is stagnant. A reasonable conclusion is that at least some of Kadima’s supporters believe that a detailed programme is unnecessary since the public is assured under the new system of being consulted before any major political initiatives, and that decisions on policy can be made based on circumstances at the time.

There are clear signals that Israel’s refreshed political system has developed notable breadth and depth. It is richly ironic that Ariel Sharon – the man who strongly supported populist government yet bitterly opposed popular governance – was the great enabler of a profound transition to a new democratic model.

Sharon’s long journey

One idea and one event encountered in his formative years appear to have had a particularly strong effect on shaping Ariel Sharon’s political perceptions. The idea was that "great men", strong leaders in well-defined positions of authority, could control human destiny. This was exemplified in the cults of personality that surrounded Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin during the second world war, and by the careers of Israel’s own David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizman, and the generals who won Israel’s war of independence.

The event was Sharon’s socialisation into the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), with its clear hierarchy and rigid chain of command. At every opportunity, beginning with his promotion to major, Sharon would test the calibre of his immediate superiors. If defeated in these jousting matches, he would settle to the role of hard-working subordinate of men like Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin. In this position, he became a superb tactician and field operator. He would cajole, humour, or browbeat his own subordinates into accomplishing seemingly impossible tasks.

At the same time, he never developed the skills of making strategy in ways that would allow him to assume a decisive leadership role. During the 1973 war, for example, he tried to capitalise on his crossing of the Suez canal with a small vanguard of seventeen tanks by persuading chief-of-staff David Elazar and the war cabinet to order the main body of Israeli forces in the Sinai to follow him. A bitter fight with Elazar erupted, in which the army chief’s entrapment of the Egyptian armed forces – which entailed a delay in reinforcing Sharon – proved him to be the true strategist in what became the biggest tank engagement since the battle of Kursk. Even though his demand would likely have led to military failure, it is Sharon’s daring and successful crossing of the canal that is remembered.

The same pattern continued when Sharon entered politics after the war. He attempted to depose Menachem Begin as Likud’s head in 1976, Yitzhak Shamir in 1984 and 1992, and Binyamin Netanyahu in 1999; he failed each time. He became the quintessential follower, not the leader he imagined himself to be. At the same time he acted or modified his position in order to satisfy what he perceived to be the prevailing centre of power.

It was only when his superiors appeared weak or less than watchful that he would try his hand at leadership and strategising – only to fail ignominiously. Here are three examples:

  • Sharon, after Menachem Begin had suffered a stroke and slipped into an extended depression in 1982, wildly expanded what had been planned as a punitive mission into Lebanon into a full-scale war from which it took Israel eighteen years to extricate itself

  • Sharon, as minister of trade and industry, took advantage of inattention by Begin’s successor Yitzhak Shamir to reimpose many barriers to competition that the civil servants had laboured so hard to dismantle in the early 1970s

  • Sharon, as minister for housing during the heyday of immigration from the ex-Soviet Union in the early 1990s, broke all budget restraints in a caravan-building spree all around the country that ended in disintegrating “homes” and enormous waste.

By the early 2000s, Sharon seemed a spent force, ready to retire to his beloved ranch. The Likud members appointed him as a successor to the discredited Netanyahu in the belief that he would be a weak, stopgap figure. In a brutal election campaign, he demolished the Labour party and its leader, Amram Mitzna, for having had the temerity to call for disengagement from the Palestinians, building a fence across the West Bank and retreating from Gaza. His Eretz Israel supporters were ecstatic.

Also by Jim Lederman in openDemocracy:

“Counter-terrorism: a true popular war”
(July 2005)

But sometime during the 2003 campaign, or immediately afterward, Sharon apparently had an epiphany. The student of strength, authority, and power at close hand came to the conclusion that the greatest source of these qualities was the body of citizen electors – only some of whom had voted for him. As demands grew for increased public security in the wake of terrorist attacks, he fell back into his traditional role as a subordinate to the source of power. If the source of power demanded disengagement, not as a populist escape from danger but as a national interest priority, well then – he, Ariel Sharon would be the one to implement it.

By applying all the tactical skills he had learned through six decades of public service to the circumstance that real policy-making takes place in Israel only after an election, he slowly but surely refashioned his cabinet into one that would meet the demands of his new source of authority. In response, the Eretz Israel movement and a majority of Likud’s central committee launched the greatest civil disobedience and impeachment campaign in Israeli history. All to no avail; assured of the support of more than the magical 60% in the pollsters’ “virtual referendum”, Sharon launched an unprecedented political counteroffensive.

The new political order had won, but its strength and status in the long-term were not assured. Sharon realised that he could not carry Likud with him on his new mission, so set out to institutionalise this order in the country by establishing a party of his own. The impact on the established political parties has been cataclysmic: they have reacted with confusion, retreating into ideologically slogans laden with fearful predictions of impending doom. But the old political wheels have lost their traction.

So far in this election campaign, most voters seem to believe more in themselves and their reasoning powers than in the blandishments of politicians. Labour and Likud, unless they recognise this reality, are in serious danger of going the way of the National Religious Party (once the third largest party in the Knesset) and becoming satellites.

At this stage, it appears that the grassroots revolution is far from over. Several strong, influential activist groups are close to gaining enough support to be able to set the question on such issues as political corruption (including Sharon’s own family), the rule of law (including how it should be applied to the settlers), and what would constitute a "fair" distribution of national wealth.

There is an important lesson in all this for anyone who would try to negotiate with Israel in the future – or to promote the peace process with the Arabs. Any diplomat who has to deal with Israel must realise what Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein recognised years before Ariel Sharon did. This is that Israelis want to be talked to – not at. The decisive majority of voters wants to be a full partner in any political process; and wants to take part in the political process without the mediation, editing and filtering of any politician or censor. This is direct democracy, Israeli-style.

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