Sunday, February 4, 2007

State of Decay

The furious switching of Israeli politicians between parties is a sign of the degeneration not only of Israeli politics, but Israeli society as a whole, writes Azmi Bishara

Sharon's new party did not cause a political earthquake in Israel; it expresses a mood and attitude that has prevailed among the Israeli right since the first Intifada. Large segments of the Israeli right have reached the conviction that Israel needs the establishment of a Palestinian state-like entity in order to extricate Israel from its demographic predicament. This conviction, however, stops well short of the conclusions that the creation of such a Palestinian state requires Israel's withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 borders, the dismantlement of all Israeli settlements and the recognition of the Palestinian right to return. In representing this conviction, Sharon's new party is in line with Washington's position as embodied in Bush's letters of guarantee to Sharon in April 2004. It also presents a purer expression of this conviction than the newly reconstituted Likud with its hard- core settler advocates, such as Moshe Feiglin, and its new ideologues who are revamping the party line preparatory to the facedown between Netanyahu and Sharon.

The creation of a new party, such as Kadima (Forward), on the eve of Knesset elections and after years of debate and political rifts brought to the surface by the unilateral disengagement plan, is perfectly valid from the standpoint of political party politics. What is not valid is the conclusion that Sharon has changed or that there is now a move in Israel towards a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian cause. Even less legitimate is that attempt to provide an ideological gloss for Arab weakness with the claim that Sharon has changed and that now the Arabs have an opportunity they must not forfeit. With this latest fad, ruling families in Arab states -- if we are to judge by recent statements and "conjectures" by their leaders in the press -- are now caught between two "alternatives": either to grasp the new opportunity presented by the new Sharon or to hold out hope for the new Labour Party leader Amir Peretz. We will have other opportunities, however, to return to this conundrum; for the moment we'll concentrate on what is not legitimate from the standpoint of democratic theory.

What is taking place in Israel's parliamentary democracy is the subordination of the political party to the political personality. Now the political game in Israel is for the individual politician to do all in his power to hold on to his office, or to make a grab for office, or to wangle his way into a position to participate in the decision- making process, or at least to manoeuvre himself so as to appear to be taking part in decision-making. Political party boundaries, platforms, ideological positions and other such considerations, which should form the bases for the election of a party's candidate to parliament, are secondary.

The phenomenon we are discussing here has nothing to do with extraordinary personalities who have attained political celebrity status by virtue of their charisma or unique accomplishments. Rather, we are talking about your run-of-the-mill career politician who has set his personal and professional ambitions as his compass for political activity regardless of political party or ideological lines. And, as this phenomenon runs rampant, the journalist's task becomes one of keeping track of, or second-guessing, the politician's movements. Will the MP leave his party or stay? Will Party Y take him on board its list? And, if so, will he be elected to parliament or get appointed to the government office he is after -- his success at attaining this or that position being the end rather than the means for promoting a party agenda.

These movements have become the daily bread of the press in its tediously unfolding soap opera. But producing such political soaps can be a fine art that reaches its peaks in election season. People go to bed one night to a certain "political party map" and wake up the following morning to a news programme featuring some politician, makeup caked on to conceal the pouches under his or her sleepless eyes, announcing that he or she had decided to switch parties. Spectators pretend they knew what party the politician originally belonged to as the show host manipulates the interview in a way that makes it patently obvious that the politician switched parties not because the Labour Party has gone too far left or the Likud too far right, or for any other ideological reason, but because the politician simply wanted to hold on to his or her parliamentary seat or because his or her presence in parliament is somehow crucial (whereas the fact is that parliament is crucial to the continuation of his or her political career). No one is taken aback by the ambitions of the politician thus exposed. The scandal, such as it is, is more insipid than the cup of coffee that has gone cold while the political talk show was running. The politician knows and the journalists know that a politician's desire to cling to his parliamentary seat regardless of the means he or she uses to attain that end is not news.

A sudden shift in party allegiances may be cast as "breaking news" but, in fact, such anomalies have become the rule in Israeli politics. When, shortly after the elections in 1977, Moshe Dayan broke with Labour to join the Likud and become foreign minister under Menachem Begin, this shift caused a political furore that took several months to die down. Dayan was obviously a pacesetter in more than one way. Today the business of shifting parliamentary allegiances has become the new convention, and this convention expresses not only the rise of a new political ethic but also the political and moral decline of society.

Parliamentary democracy is founded upon competing and sometimes clashing political ideas or programmes, which are expressed by political parties that vie with one another through the electoral process to obtain a majority of the seats in parliament in order to create a government and promote the decisions needed to implement those ideas or programmes. Politicians, under this concept, are representatives of their respective political parties, which attempt to vote them into parliament with the purpose of furthering the objectives of the party. The representative is, precisely as this term implies, not an individual member of parliament who can act as he pleases. He is a member of a parliamentary bloc, and this affiliation determines when he can have input, how much input he can have, the substance of his input and even the place he sits in the parliamentary chamber. Generally, too, parliaments have rules and conditions for how and when a parliamentary representative can break away from his bloc and establish new blocs.

Of course, these conditions are founded on the presumption that members of parliament are free to change their party allegiances if so moved by changes in their political positions. In fact to do so under such circumstances is not only a legitimate decision but a duty, for political parties have no meaning unless its members subscribe to the party's positions and outlook, especially in view of the fact that a parliamentary seat is not the property of the individual MP but of the political party that voted him or her into parliament. This applies to local municipal elections in which the personality or repute of the individual candidate plays a major role. But it is even more important under a proportional legislative election system in which the competition is between rival party lists rather than individual candidates.

However, this is not what is happening in Israel, where celebrity cultism is replacing ideas and principles in party politics, and where political parties are importing stars from the army, media personalities, business magnates and university professors who are big on proclamations and short on academic production in order to better market themselves to the public. Herein resides another facet of the political party and moral crisis in Israel. The need to import celebrities implies that the party is incapable of producing figures capable of winning over the public and that they must therefore rely on activists and vote contractors who lack the statesmanship and expertise to lead the nation. This is a far cry from what once prevailed in Israel, when prominent intellectuals, writers and politicians remained loyal to their party of choice or at least to the party platform, when they rose through party ranks to the stage where they would be regarded as eligible to represent the party in parliament, when party politics was not so much a "scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" game between a political party eager for media exposure and individuals lusting for fame and for whom the political party becomes no more than a means to catapult themselves into the limelight and to further their other personal ends.

The only factor that might conceivably alleviate the impact of the decline of political party life in Israel on "Jewish democracy" is that these shifts and about-faces in party alliances are taking place within the framework of the same tribe and the same Zionist articles of faith. But, in this case, we must conclude either that this is not a parliamentary democracy but some other party system, or that an overriding ideology permits such movements within its framework and acts like glue to keep the system from falling apart. Clearly, we are before a curious anomaly among democratic states. In both cases, the situation makes it easy for those so inclined to advocate the transformation to the executive system in which political parties become less significant and influential and to advocate parliamentary elections at the constituency level in which the person of the individual candidate assumes greater weight. In all events, these are choices to be taken by the members of the tribe; the Arabs are entirely excluded from the game.

One of the manifestations of the crisis of political party life and the domination of considerations of media image over party platform and action is how the Labour Party after the Netanya bombing has packed its ranks with a collection of former generals and security chiefs. If we win against Sharon and Mofaz, these candidates are telling Israeli voters, Israel will be in safe hands. The issue is not that Israel might fall into unsafe hands -- God forbid -- should the other side win, but that Labour finds it necessary to reassure the Israeli electorate that it is not as moderate as it appears. Precisely for this reason, Peretz has been driving home the point that while his party may be the most peace-loving and dovish it is also the most militant and that if it came to power it would be in the best position to use violence against terrorism because the world will be more understanding if it is compelled to do so. Anything becomes possible in campaigns that are run in accordance with the demands of the television cameras instead of political party doctrines. Even the Labour Party's dovishness can become a battle cry. Peretz is the man upon whom hopes are pinned in an Arab world divided between "realists" who are rooting for Sharon and the "not as realistic" who are cheering on Peretz.

In Haaretz of 5 December, Reuben Pedatzur remarked that nothing could be more dangerous for Israeli citizens than the combination of the approaching elections and the talks over the security budget. "Suddenly it appears that Israel is facing an immense and immanent threat to its existence and that confronting it requires two steps: increasing the security budget and electing Ariel Sharon." That immanent security threat that demands the re- election of Sharon is apparently hailing from Iran. Playing on this theme, Israeli military intelligence chief Aharon Zeevi declared that if the Iranian nuclear programme isn't stopped by March 2006 it would be "too late!". As evidence of the peril looming from that direction, he cited Tehran's purchase of an anti-missile defence shield, the improved accuracy of Syria's missiles and the Iranians' "breathtaking" progress in developing the Shihab missile.

There is nothing new in this anti-Iranian alarmism apart from the fact that it now coincides with the Knesset campaigns and discussions over the security budget. But because of this coincidence we hear Netanyahu calling for a military strike against Iran, even though he knows Israel is not in a position to do so, and we find Sharon and Shimon Peres in a press conference trying to do him one better. But none of these hold a candle to Ephraim Sneh, Peretz's current security expert, and his persistent and systematic incitement against Iran.

Iran has been developing a nuclear weapon for some time, the Shihab-3 has been ready for use since the successful test of this missile on 11 August 2004, and Tehran did purchase an anti-missile defence system from Russia. But none of these alter the regional balances of power with respect to Israel. More importantly, Sharon knows that Israel is incapable, even with its latest state- of-the-art aircraft, of striking a target 1,700 kilometres away, and that, in all events, the world has changed and Iran has benefited from the experience of Iraq. He, above all, should realise that the illusions created by such sabre rattling are very dangerous in their own right.

At the outset of the 1990s, Israeli military intelligence began to warn that Tehran would possess a nuclear weapon within five years. That five-year period has not yet ended. Two years ago, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz proclaimed that in 2004 Iran's nuclear programme would reach the point of no return. Today, Israeli military officials felt it necessary to revise that date to March 2006. Evidently, Tehran's immanent possession of a nuclear bomb has to remain permanently immanent. But then, it is no secret that since 1973 military intelligence has been tailoring its reports to what the Israeli government wants to hear.

The fact is, Israeli intelligence agencies, like other Western intelligence agencies, do not have sufficient information on the progress of Iran's nuclear programme. Iran may possess a nuclear weapon and it may not. If it does, Israel will probably have to get used to it. Meanwhile, the approaching Knesset elections and the military allocations debate have conspired to make the "Iranian peril" loom as large as can be. This security alarmism and catering to the public hysteria it creates have combined to form a very dangerous game.