Israeli Politics, Bankrupt

Yossi Sarid entered Israel's parliament 34 years ago as one of two young, rising stars. The other was Ehud Olmert. Today, Olmert is prime minister, but the operative word here is "today." Last week, the police recommended to prosecutors that Olmert be indicted for bribery, money laundering, and other forms of corruption too numerous for anyone outside the fraud squad to keep track of. This Wednesday, Olmert's centrist Kadima party will vote for a new leader, potentially the country's next prime minister.

Sarid, on the other hand, resigned from the Knesset two years ago after a long, principled, and impassioned career. His last term was really only an epilogue, after he accepted responsibility for the poor showing of the small, social democratic Meretz party in the 2003 election and stepped down as party leader. But beyond the electoral failure, "I felt more than a small measure of apathy, if not to say despair, with the political system," he told me last week, in the deep melodious voice that can still make a phone conversation hint at a stump speech. "I felt … that the system no longer mobilized the resources of my soul."

The melancholy last acts of the two careers point to the malaise of Israeli politics. The system itself appears virtually bankrupt, lacking the basic asset of public trust and no longer offering a clear choice between competing ideas. While the allegations against Olmert are upsetting, they also have a strange air of normalcy. The previous three prime ministers -- Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, and Benjamin Netanyahu -- all faced police investigations on financial matters, though none led to indictments. The ideological distinctions between the major parties have faded to minor differences of emphasis.

Idealists, it seems, have largely given up the arena of party politics, leaving it to the allegedly corrupt, the mediocre, and the merely uninspiring. Olmert fits the first category. The other two categories are represented, respectively, by Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who are also the main contenders to take his place as head of Kadima. Whichever one wins will either have to form a new government or call a national election that will produce no national enthusiasm -- especially since the other candidates will be Barak (of Labor) and Netanyahu (for the Likud).

Speaking with experts and ex-politicians, I've heard lots of reasons for the breakdown. But the recurring theme is diplomatic stalemate. For decades, the overriding, inseparable issues in Israeli politics have been solving the conflict with the Palestinians and setting the country's borders. But there's a pervasive public mood that resolving those issues is beyond Israel's reach. Visions have become obsolete, at least until a change elsewhere opens a new window of opportunity.

In the 1980s, as political sociologist Lev Grinberg of Ben-Gurion University notes, a disastrous invasion of Lebanon and the first Palestinian uprising forced a stormy debate in Israel on national goals and on the limits of military power. The right, led by the Likud, aimed at maintaining permanent Israeli rule of the Whole Land of Israel, including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. The left sought peace agreements based on territorial concessions, and the center-left Labor party slouched toward recognition of the Palestinian national movement as the necessary negotiating partner. In the 1990s, the Oslo process with the Palestinians brought that debate to furious intensity. The peace process, I should stress, rested not only on changes in Israel but also among the Palestinians -- and on America's use of its overwhelming position after the end of the Cold War.

But in 2000, when Barak was prime minister, the Oslo process collapsed and a new Palestinian uprising began. Mistakes by the Palestinians, Israel, and the United States all contributed to that breakdown. But Israelis are hardly unique in presuming that the other side bears sole responsibility for a conflict. And as I've noted in the past, Barak sought to salvage his reputation by telling a receptive public that the Palestinians had simply rejected peace. Meanwhile, the international climate darkened. George W. Bush moved into the White House, and Sturm und Drang replaced diplomacy as American policy in the Mideast.

In the past year, it's true, Olmert resumed negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, under Bush's lackadaisical, lame-duck sponsorship. I've yet to speak to anyone in Israel who expects those talks to lead to a peace agreement -- not least because Abbas has lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas.

"Once we negotiated and it failed, and we interpret the failure as [the Palestinians'] fault … it's clear that the only way to relate to them is by force," says Grinberg, providing a critique of the Israeli mood since 2000. So all that's left to debate, he suggests, is "who's most sophisticated in using force, who's the best manager" of the conflict. Livni touts a CEO image; Mofaz, an ex-general, takes every opportunity to call for greater use of military force. These are differences, but not the kind that stir a nation or restore faith in politics.

For the moment, moreover, the diplomatic stalemate seems, well, manageable, to most Israelis. The ceasefire in Gaza is holding up; terror attacks are rare. But the stability is more fragile than Israelis realize. Ramallah-based pollster Khalil Shikaki points to the correlation among Palestinians between "lack of confidence in diplomacy and increased support for violence." He adds, ominously, "That's exactly the situation that developed after Camp David," before the eruption of the second Intifada. Yet a new round of fighting risks confirming Israelis' belief that no solution is possible.

Under such circumstances, even a determined old dove like Yossi Sarid pins his hopes on the deus ex machina of a shift in the international environment, starting in Washington. "There's a well-known Talmudic saying, 'The prisoner cannot free himself from the prison.' We and the Palestinians are prisoners, and we cannot free ourselves from the chains," he told me.

"The tragedy is that for the last eight years one of the biggest idiots has been the leader of the world -- Bush. That's for quotation. And therefore eight years have been wasted. So let's hope that perhaps the next administration, in light of the lessons of Iraq … will do what hasn't been done."

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