While you were sleeping


Aviad Kleinberg, Haaretz, 24.7.02



Unlike the old brassiere advertisement - wear one without feeling it - the state of Israel is not wearing one, and feels like it is. The democratic mechanisms have ceased functioning, but the society still perceives the state as a democracy through and through. Not with a putsch, tanks outside parliament and an emergency regime. The army hasn't taken over the broadcasting stations and opposition leaders have not been thrown into jail. But who needs such primitive measures when there is nothing to obstruct a small group of politicians, industrialists and military men from doing what they want.


It begins with the legislature. Israel has never had an aggressive, responsible parliamentary tradition, but since Ehud Barak's administration, the Knesset only appears to be functioning. There is no real opposition, nor any demand for the energetic debate that has characterized parliaments since they were created. Indeed, this Knesset is contemptible in the eyes of every strata of society, from the right through the center to the left.


The judiciary meanwhile is behaving as if it figures the party is over. The days of Aharon Barak's judicial activism are over. It's obvious that after the next elections, there will be radical changes in the way judges are appointed and in the composition of the bench. The sometimes exaggerated awe that the Supreme Court and its president once inspired, has faded. Cowardly, with the sense that the ruling elite doesn't fear it any more, the judicial system now tends to avoid whenever possible any challenge to the government - and certainly on any matter cloaked by security.


As for the executive branch, the huge increase in the number of ministers in the government has resulted in paralysis. The current government functions like a debating society meant to approve decisions made by a forum that consists of the prime minister and a few of his close aides. That also began in Barak's administration, when his government "functioned" without support in the Knesset and without a real cabinet. Barak preferred to hold onto as many portfolios as possible to decide as much as possible on his own, in the face of feeble protests even from the "knights of democracy." I'm not sure Barak "exposed the true face" of the Palestinians, but there's no doubt he exposed the profound weakness of the Israeli republic.


The Israeli press, that "watchdog of democracy," is a well-trained puppy. Even in countries with democratic traditions stronger than Israel's, like the U.S., the dog tends to stop barking when the war drums are beating. In Israel, the press wags its tail enthusiastically.


Democracy is not simply a matter of electing representatives. It is a complex system of governing rules, ethical standards, checks and balances. It's a system of government meant to guarantee a serious and frank public debate of social problems and policies. It is a system in which civil society is meant to take action when its representatives betray their position.


But Israeli society sits impotent, astride a barrel of gunpowder. Its unceasing maltreatment of the Palestinians under cover of security needs, the evil and stupid discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel, the widening social gaps and the harm being done to the weak - all add up to a ticking bomb under the Israeli carpet. And the ruling Israeli elite is neither interested in the problems, nor capable of dealing with them seriously. All its effort goes into continuing to repress them. Since the problems will only get worse, the elite's natural tendency will be to accrue more powers in the name of emergencies and to rely increasingly on the only arm that serves it to its satisfaction (meaning undemocratically) - the army.


The rules of the game will be preserved on the exterior, but erosion will take place inside - more "unity" and "patriotism," less criticism and long-range thinking. Israeli society is now ready to trade in values and principles for immediate gratification, which means inventing more and more "operations" and at the same time compromising over more and more democratic "luxuries."


Only a genuine shake-up of the political system can stop this slippery slide and the first step is the creation of a genuine opposition, which is the primary watchdog of democracy. How is it created? Certainly not with musical chairs played by Yossi and Yossi and Avrum and Haim. What we are lacking are new energies and renewed commitment; a zealousness for democracy, justice and morality, which has disappeared in the sea of cynicism and despair.


Dr. Kleinberg is a lecturer in history at Tel Aviv University.