WASHINGTON--Imagine that on the day after the 1980 election Ronald Reagan, having crushed President Jimmy Carter, offered to make him secretary of defense, to make defeated Vice President Walter Mondale secretary of state, and to share power equally for the next four years with the Democrats he had just trounced by 10 points. Well, the equivalent has just happened in Israel, and no one seems to think it very remarkable.
Indeed in Israel, Ariel Sharon defeated Prime Minister Barak by more than twice Reagan's margin--an unprecedented 25 points. Sharon then immediately offered Barak the defense ministry in a coalition government.
The ostensible rationale is that a majority of Israelis want a government of national unity. But this is no government of national unity. This is a government of political convenience, a safety net for careerist politicians.
It is not as if the centers of both major parties agreed to rule on a common coherent platform. The Labor and Likud approaches to the Palestinian crisis remain as far apart today as they were just three weeks ago when Labor was calling Sharon a warmonger and Likud was calling Barak an appeaser.
We know why Barak accepted the offer: It might keep his political career alive. To no avail, as it turned out. His own party just dumped him for his remarkable combination of cynicism and ineptitude.
Why did Sharon make the offer in the first place? He had a huge mandate to govern in a new way, with a tougher, less delusional approach to the Palestinians. And yet he offers to share the government with precisely the people he had been saying were destroying the country. The draft Labor-Likud coalition agreement, for example, makes (BEG ITAL)no mention of a united Jerusalem--one of the central planks on which Sharon won his landslide.
Sharon did it to stay in power for more than the next few months. Without the support of Labor, he'd have to form a narrow right-wing government. In the current Knesset, however, that government would soon collapse, leading to new elections. That would bring back to power the choice of most Israelis: former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Indeed this whole election was staged to prevent the return of Netanyahu. Barak pulled a political trick--a snap resignation that forced this election--in order to keep Netanyahu, who was leading everybody in the polls by huge margins, off the ballot on a technicality.
The Knesset then repaired the technicality, but Netanyahu withdrew because the Knesset refused to dissolve itself. That meant whoever was elected prime minister would have to govern with a parliament elected two years ago--before Barak's humiliation at Camp David, before Arafat's rejection of peace, before the five-month old guerrilla war that Arafat then unleashed.
The war, the terrorism, the fear, and the implacable rejectionism of the Palestinians have totally changed the political culture of Israel from where it was two years ago. The left is in disarray. Its illusions of peace have been destroyed. Many even crossed over to vote for their great nemesis, Ariel Sharon.
Yet this rump Knesset--this pre-intifada relic--which has long outlived its legitimacy, remains. Clinging to its petty privileges,
it denies any parliamentary expression for the new rightward Israeli consensus, as represented in Barak's overwhelming defeat. Hence the need for a phony, oxymoronic ``national unity'' government.
How could this happen? It could only happen in a country lacking a democratic civic culture and tradition. In a mature democracy, Britain for example, a parliament that has obviously lost its legitimacy, that reflects a consensus now washed away by events, would not keep itself in power.
But then Britain has more than 800 years of parliamentary tradition, with all the graces that habit lays down over time. Israel has no such political culture. Its democracy is half a century old. It is a nation of immigrants who've imbibed the political cultures of dozens of countries, some democratic, some autocratic, some dictatorial, some insane. Israelis have yet to develop a new consensus regarding political decency and legitimacy.
Moreover, the Jews are out of practice. Two-thousand years without power--clinging to life among oppressive rulers through the good offices of court Jews, special pleaders and circumventors--have left them bereft of the habits of self-government.
This is particularly tragic today. Israel's crisis is approaching the existential. The country, in the words of Chief of General Staff Shaul Mofaz, is in a ``state of war in every way.'' There is fear everywhere. Israel has never needed a legitimate parliament and coherent government more than today. Whether Labor and Likud can concoct a marriage of convenience, or whether Sharon must rely on the (now underrepresented) parliamentary right, Israel will have neither.