JERUSALEM, Israel -- Last Friday night, the TV stations in Israel were in a frenzy over the right-wing incitement against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza and the northern West Bank and to expel all Jews living in these areas from their homes and communities. Israel Channel 2 devoted fully a third of its hour-long news broadcast to the issue -- super-imposing images of the mass political protests against the agreements with the PLO in the months before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995 with footage from the recent mass rally and protests against Sharon's withdrawal plan.
The medai made of the fact that right-wing activist Jewish Itamar Ben-Gvir yelled at Education Minister Limor Livnat at the memorial service for the slain Jewish underground leader from the pre-statehood days, Avraham Stern. Ben-Gvir told her (probably correctly) that Stern would never have approved her support for Sharon's plan.
It was unpleasant seeing Ben-Gvir and his nasty friends following Livnat and yelling at her. But then again, how was their behavior different from that of members of Knesset who insult and curse one other as a matter of course? Why is this news?
Then there is the pseudo-attack against Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last Thursday night. The initial reports claimed that a group of anti-withdrawal thugs slashed Netanyahu s tires and surrounded him, yelling, as he tried to make it to his disabled car. He was spirited away in another vehicle, escaping, so the reports had us believe, by the skin of his teeth.
After the matter was duly investigated, it worked out that Netanyahu's tires had not been slashed; he may simply have had a flat tire. And that no group of hooligans had surrounded him; one teenager had yelled at him. According to Amnon Abramovich, from Channel 2, this teenager had actually been asked to yell at Netanyahu by a journalist at the scene who told him what to say and even sent him a "thank you for a job well done" text message on his cellular phone.
In the meantime, in light of these major infractions on the apparent right of public servants to receive no unpleasant criticism for their support of highly controversial policies, Sunday, Interior Security Minister Gideon Ezra called for inciters -- including people writing nasty graffiti on city streets -- to be placed under administrative detention.
For his part, Sharon has castigated anyone who calls for a referendum on his withdrawal program as contributing to incitement and indeed as advancing the cause of civil war. In a speech last week Sharon said, "The idea of holding a national referendum is an attempt to delay the implementation of the Disengagement Plan." He went on to say, "The inciters use threats of civil war in order to influence the public who wants disengagement but prefers quiet. A national referendum will bring about an increase in incitement."
So for the prime minister of Israel, anyone who claims that the Israeli voters have a right to weigh in on what is perhaps the most controversial plan ever adopted by an Israeli government is playing a direct role in inciting a civil war.
This is a shocking statement for two reasons. First, it shows the utter disdain the prime minister feels for his own people who he clearly doesn't believe are capable of responsibly exercising the freedom to choose. Second, Sharon is effectively saying that anyone who calls for the people to be given the right to choose is guilty of fomenting a rebellion. That is, he has relegated all of his political opponents to criminal status.
This week saw MK Effi Eitam thrown out of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee when he argued with Sharon for accusing parliamentarians who are opposed to his plan of incitement. Apparently, the committee chairman Yuval Steinitz is unaware that in a democracy, one of the main functions of a parliament is to enable free and fair -- often rancorous -- debate of the issues of the day, and that it is the responsibility of legislators to call leaders to account for their actions and policies.
Then there is democratically challenged Transportation Minister (and former justice minister) Meir Sheetrit. On Monday, Sheetrit told Israel radio that as far as he is concerned, Likud party members are guilty of incitement when they write letters to Likud MKs informing them that future political support for these politicians is dependent on their voting against the withdrawal and expulsion plan. That is, in Sheetrit's view, it is incitement for constituents to base their support for politicians on the extent to which those politicians advance their interests while in office.
The most amazing aspect of the entire "incitement" craze is that, as Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter explained this week, statements by opponents of Sharon's plan have no influence over potential assassins. According to Dichter, there are some 500 people floating around who fit the psychological profile of a potential assassin. Like Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, and John Hinckley Jr. who attempted to assassinate US president Ronald Reagan in 1981 these individuals are not members of any organization or group.
Rather, potential assassins are sociopaths with messianic protestations of divine selection. People of Amir's ilk are not moved by what leaders say. They are moved by their own delusions of grandeur and sense of alienation. They would murder even if no one were in the streets protesting against Sharon's plan.
But in the meantime, rather than focusing their attentions on finding and neutralizing the threat posed by such sociopaths, our political leadership is moving to demonize and criminalize the huge swath of the Israeli public who opposes Sharon s policy of withdrawal and expulsion.
In advancing this objective which, if allowed to continue, will destroy Israeli democracy the government has been ably assisted by the media. The news media's advocacy of Sharon s withdrawal plan has been shockingly brazen. Opponents of the plan, when given any airtime at all, find themselves under attack.
Rather than allowing people like MK Gideon Sa'ar or Binyamin Regional Council Chairman Pinchas Wallerstein to explain why it is that they oppose the plan, radio and television left-wing partisans posing as objective journalists attack them for their role in contributing to the "atmosphere of incitement," and pointedly demand that they justify their disloyal and dangerous behavior. On the other hand, these pretend journalists shamelessly pander to Sharon's supporters, such as Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is constantly handed softball questions by fawning hacks commiserating with him about the dangerous extremists on the right who are just about to kill Sharon.
Because, as far as these paragons of the free press are concerned, it is a foregone conclusion that Sharon will be assassinated. On Sunday, under a headline that proclaimed "The Fear: A Jewish Suicide Attacker," a Yediot Aharonot sub-head asserted, "The question isn't whether they will try to assassinate the prime minister, the question is how." Alex Fishman, the paper s military "reporter," detailed the likelihood of a Jewish suicide bomber breaking through Sharon's security cordon and then pushing the button. The entire article was devoid of sourcing, facts or even grounded suspicions. But then, what can we expect from the most widely read newspaper in the country? Certainly not that it accurately report the news.
Back in 1798, the US Congress passed the Sedition Act. The act, which was aimed at silencing political criticism of president John Adams' administration, was dressed up as a precaution against what at that time was an imminent threat of war between the US and France. The act made it a criminal offense to criticize the government, and its enforcement brought about the imprisonment of a number of anti-Adams newspaper publishers and editors.
This fundamentally unconstitutional and anti-democratic law was allowed to lapse. But if it had remained in effect, would it have prevented four American presidents from being assassinated in later years? Given the profile of political assassins, it strains credulity to think so. On the other hand, one thing is clear beyond doubt: Had the Sedition Act remained the law of the land, democracy in America would have been destroyed.
US Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously said, "Every idea is an incitement." And in a democracy, ideas -- that is incitement -- are supposed to flow uninhibited. Indeed, ideas -- from the idiotic to the sublime -- are the stuff of democratic societies. The constant incitement of competing ideas is what differentiates democracies from tyrannies.
The failure of Sharon, his allies and underlings -- like the failure of his apparatchiks who run the country's media -- to understand that just as an elected government has the legal right to set policy, so does its political opposition have a legal right to protest its policies as loudly, nastily and unaesthetically as they wish, exposes a singular failure of our political and cultural elite to adopt the habits of democracy.
The main victim of this terrible reality is, of course, the Israeli public, which has not been afforded an opportunity to hear any significant debate or discussion of Sharon's plan to uproot thousands of Jews from their homes and withdraw Israeli forces from Gaza and northern Samaria. This policy -- arguably the most controversial plan ever to be adopted by an Israeli government -- is being bulldozed through to implementation without Sharon or his allies ever satisfactorily explaining how it will advance Israel's security or political interests.
Sharon has not explained how turning Gaza over the Palestinians will enhance Israeli security.
He has not explained how Israel will protect itself from rocket and mortar attacks on Ashkelon, Ashdod or Netivot after the withdrawal.
He has never explained why it is necessary to give the Palestinians the communities in northern Gaza - Dugit, Alei Sinai and Nissanit - which are geographically indistinguishable from Ashkelon and whose heights control the entire area.
He has never explained how Israel will be able to defend the strategic sites like the Ashkelon power station and the Ashkelon-Eilat oil pipeline with Hamas roaming freely on those heights.
He has never explained why it is necessary for Israel to remove itself to the 1949 armistice lines, rather than retain the areas necessary for its security and what Israeli acceptance of these lines in Gaza means for future negotiations regarding the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Because of the absence of real debate in the Knesset or in the press, and the concerted effort by the government and the media to criminalize political speech, the Israeli public is being denied the one thing that distinguishes a democracy from a tyranny: the ability of the citizenry to make informed decisions and to hold their leaders accountable for their actions.
Caroline B. Glick is the senior Middle East fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post where this article first appeared.