In Sharon's democracy

Posted: Jun 04, 2005 12:00 AM

On Thursday afternoon, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's personal attorney Dov Weisglass announced a major policy initiative during a speech at Tel Aviv University. Weisglass said that after the completion of the expulsion of 10,000 Israelis from their villages in Gaza and northern Samaria this summer, Israel will expel still more citizens from their homes by destroying the so-called "unauthorized communities" in Judea and the rest of Samaria.

This statement is remarkable for two reasons. First, it totally contradicts the statements Weisglass made last year to Haaretz newspaper according to which the withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria would be Israel's last withdrawal for years. Specifically, Weisglass said then that after the planned pullout goes through, "there will be no timetable to implement the settlers' nightmare [of further expulsions from additional communities]. I have postponed that nightmare indefinitely. Because what I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns."

So that was a lie, or perhaps he is lying now. At any rate, Weisglass's statement Thursday proves incontrovertibly that he has no personal credibility.

The second reason that Weisglass's statement is remarkable is that this major policy announcement came seemingly out of thin air. There has been no debate regarding the destruction of these communities in the government in recent weeks. There has been no public advocacy for the move by Sharon or Weisglass. There has been no report of staff work being assigned to the IDF or to members of the civil service to weigh the advantages or disadvantages of the announced plan, and of course, the announcement comes with no mention of what will result from such a move.

In testimony before the Israeli Knesset's State Comptroller's Committee on Monday, Sharon was grilled by committee members on the staff work which preceded his decision to withdraw from Gaza and northern Samaria. Parliamentarian Yuri Shtern attempted to find out what policy options the plan was weighed against and what the strategic purpose of the plan is supposed to be. Other committee members requested that Sharon describe the staff work regarding the strengthening of communities in Judea and Samaria and plans for resettlement of the Israelis now scheduled for expulsion.

Sharon refused to answer any of these queries, opting instead to slide by the proceedings by telling jokes, teasing and patronizing female committee members, and reading irrelevant statements from a prepared text from which he did not deviate. The press coverage of the meeting was generally sympathetic towards Sharon. Anchormen raved about his charm and wit that enabled him to emerge unscathed from the committee without answering a single question.

In the US, the big story of the week was the revelation of the identity of Deep Throat ? the near mythological source of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's coverage of the Watergate scandal. The reportage of the fact that Deep Throat was W. Mark Felt, the then No. 2 man at the FBI, has been remarkably up-front about the problematic nature of Felt's motivations for bringing down the Nixon Administration by leaking privileged information to Woodward. Even the Washington Post noted that Felt was moved to act against Nixon at least in part by untoward motivations. On the one hand Felt had a personal animus towards Nixon after the president refrained from appointing him to replace J. Edgar Hoover as FBI director when Hoover passed away in 1972. On the other hand, Felt took umbrage at the fact that Nixon was attempting to bring the FBI ? which for nearly half a century under Hoover's leadership operated beyond the oversight of any governing body ? under executive control. To a degree then, in light of Felt's centrality in causing Nixon to resign in disgrace, it can be said that Watergate was a war between a corrupt White House and a corrupt FBI and the corrupt FBI won.

The fact that today the US press is able to take a critical look at the role that Felt played shows that the American media have moved a long way from their monolithic support for anyone who had anything bad to say against Nixon from 33 years ago. As opposed to the situation in the 1970s, today the US media are not monolithic. The ideological competition between the various major media outlets in the US today means that the bias of one side is often canceled out by the bias of the other side and in the balance what remains is a reasonably sophisticated and credible media debate on the issues of the day.

When senior officials in the CIA attempted in the run-up to the 2004 presidential elections to bring about President George W. Bush's defeat at the polls by constantly leaking damaging stories about Bush and his advisers to the press, the CIA itself came under media scrutiny. So too, when CBS tried to bring about Bush's defeat by reporting embarrassing documents regarding his service in the Texas Air National Guard, the right-wing press almost immediately proved that the documents were forgeries and so CBS, once immune from criticism, too had its professionalism questioned.

In the competitive media market that exists today in America, it is almost unthinkable that a new Deep Throat could emerge and evade all questioning of his motivations. And this is to the good. Leftist media scrutiny of Bush's claims that Iraq under Saddam had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction did not end as a result of the revelation that much of the material related to the issue came from anti-Bush CIA and State Department officials. So too, if Felt had been exposed in 1973, Nixon may well have still been forced to resign, but the public would also have had a chance to understand the nature of the game being played and the shock incurred by the US political system as a result of the Watergate scandal could have been moderated.

In France and Holland this week we saw again what happens when media and policy elites operate for too long outside the realm of public scrutiny. If the French and Dutch governments and the rest of the EU elites had invested time over that past 30 or so years debating the ramifications of European integration with their citizenry, then the humiliation their people served them at the polls this week by overwhelmingly rejecting the verbose and inscrutable constitution they had written probably would have been averted.

What keeps democratic societies on a stable and forward-moving keel is the constant back and forth between leaders and the people, just as the reason why some businesses succeed while others fail is because some pay attention to the needs of their consumers and stockholders and others pay attention to the needs of their top executives.

Haaretz, the newspaper of Israel's narcissistic elites, editorialized sneeringly that the lesson of the French vote is that it is unwise to trust the people to make important decisions. "What clearly arises," the paper lectured, "is the danger inherent when a representative democracy gives up its elected representatives' authority to decide. Legislatures, governments and heads of the executive branch are elected in order to bear the burden of making difficult decisions. Abandoning this responsibility and transferring it to the general public transfers the vote from the domain of the intellect to that of emotion."

In Israel today there is no debate about anything substantive. Our monolithically leftist media and legal establishment block all discussion about the ramifications of Sharon's withdrawal plan, limiting pubic scrutiny to how best to punish those who publicly oppose it. Rather than discuss the implications of handing Gaza over to the PA which, under "democratically elected" chairman Mahmoud Abbas, has done everything in its power to strengthen terrorist elements in Palestinian society, we discuss whether minors arrested for blocking traffic to protest the plan should be allowed to take their university matriculation examinations in prison.

Rather than discuss how Sharon plans to hold onto the rest of Judea and Samaria, we are given exclusive footage of right-wingers who have taken over the hotel in Neveh Dekalim in Gaza ahead of the planned pullout.

Rather than discuss why it is that Sharon decided to evacuate four communities in northern Samaria when the IDF and the Shin Bet both say that at any rate the IDF will have to remain in place to prevent rocket and mortar attacks on Tel Aviv and Kfar Saba, we are told that the opponents of the plan are anti-democratic thugs who have no loyalty to the state.

Rather than discuss the fact that the prime minister arguably broke the law by not cooperating with a Knesset hearing, we are told how charming and funny he was as he brushed off irritating questions from fuddy-duddy parliamentarians who haven't yet gotten with the program.

And rather than discuss the status of the government's relations with the White House, which has clearly increased its support for the PA and diminished its support for Israel over the past year and a half, we are regaled with stories about how Sharon boasted to the president that he has more cows on his ranch in Israel than Bush has on his ranch in Texas.

What we learn from the US experience from Watergate and the European experience with their constitution is that when governmental and media elites ignore or mislead their societies, societal stability and democratic institutions are always the greatest victims. Sharon, in making the most important decisions affecting the future of Israeli society in secretive meetings with his sons, attorneys and publicists, while seeking only the approval of the self-serving elites who long ago cut themselves off from the wider public which they view as stupid, shallow and emotional, is following in the worst traditions of corrupt politicians throughout the Western world. And unless he is forced by the Knesset, the media and the citizenry at large to abandon this path, the harsh consequences won't be long in coming.