By Yehuda Poch

Election campaigns bring out the more pompous characteristics of many politicians. It is following the elections, when government attitudes toward real issues are formed, that the test of true statesmanship begins.

The emerging coalition represents a distinct change in the flavor of government in Israel. The clear winners are mainstream Israelis, who can now hope for the beginnings of a religious-secular reconciliation and a more pragmatic approach to solving the serious problems afflicting our nation.

The losers are those political parties who simply don't understand the need for pragmatic solutions in Israeli society. During the recent election campaign, and in the weeks following the vote, the Labor party and the haredi parties have proven unable to descend from bombastic, pompous posturing to more realistic politics.

The performance of Ariel Sharon's government over the past two years has been dismal. Security is no better now than it was when he took office, and the economy is demonstrably worse. An excuse can be made, however tenuous, that Sharon was hamstrung by the incoherent composition of the Knesset he inherited. And now that that composition has been corrected, Sharon can set out correcting the serious problems that plague Israel.

The first step is the formation of the new coalition with Shinui and the National Religious Party. These parties possess leaders who are capable of true statesmanship. Effi Eitam, the fiery and charismatic leader of the National Religious Party, and Tommy Lapid, the centrist champion of the Israeli middle class, are not cut from the same ideological cloth. Eitam came from a secular background and embraced religion as a way of life that provides strong values and a coherent direction. Lapid assails religion at every opportunity as a backward system that provides only a crutch for those incapable or unwilling to take full part in society.

But both have a sense of national responsibility that compels them to strive for a real improvement in society. These two leaders, partly at the urging of Sharon, managed to hammer out an agreement that will allow them both to sit in a government of pragmatism and, it is hoped, solutions that the vast majority of Israelis can live with.

The responses to the Shinui-NRP agreement have been loud and angry. The haredi parties, Shas and UTJ, have condemned Eitam and the NRP for basically selling their souls to the devil. They condemned Likud for turning their back on the historic alliance with the haredi parties. But they don't get it.

The devil, if that is how Lapid is to be known, was invited into power by the refusal of the haredi parties to assume any national responsibility in the religious-secular realm. UTJ has steadfastly refused to accept a ministry in a government to which many of its constituents have little loyalty. Shas has done a reasonably good job in the health ministry during the last two terms, and a passable job in the social affairs ministry. They have even made major improvements in the Interior Ministry.

But the all-or-nothing attitudes of both parties, the elevation of political self-interest to an integral part of religion, and the refusal to reach compromises where those interests - rather than real religion - are at stake, bespeak a rejection of mainstream societal values. At the same time, these parties demand support from mainstream society and the trappings of power that go with it.

The future identity of the Jewish nation is at stake in the policies of the Israeli government. While Shas and UTJ have valuable input into such discussions, their contributions thus far have been restricted to their own definitions of what that identity should be and no patience for any other ideas - or for pragmatic compromises. The positions of Shas and UTJ do not resonate with Jewish youth who question their own identity and place in society. Instead, such youth view these positions with growing contempt, which pushes them farther from religion and defeats the attempts of Shas and UTJ to affect the debate on Jewish identity. As a result, Shinui won such an astounding victory that the rabbinic leaders can only scream into the wind.

The Labor party is an even better example of the ignorance of leaders who purport to have the interests of the people at heart. They elected Amram Mitzna, a neophyte on the national scene, as their leader. He proceeded to drag Labor's policy back to the days of Ehud Barak - a man even Laborites recognize as the worst prime minister in Israel's history. After two years of violence brought on Barak's miscalcluations, the Israeli electorate did not want to hear about more unilateral concessions to terrorists.

Mitzna again displayed infantile behavior yesterday, complaining that Sharon was working behind the Labor Party's back to form a government with the NRP and Shinui, leaving Labor out in the cold. "I was ready for a historic move but Sharon was not prepared to pay the price," he said. This from a man who all through the election campaign told all and sundry that he would not join a Sharon-led government under any circumstances.

It seems that Labor - and Mitzna - also don't get it. The electorate in Israel is ready for compromise on a lot of issues. But they demand national responsibility on the part of their leaders and a clear improvement in the standard of living from security, economic, and social standpoints. Under Mitzna, Labor has moved to the extreme left wing of rejectionist parties who are more interested in their own narrow self-interest than in providing what the citizens of Israel seek.

Until now, that territory had been the exclusive domain of Meretz. They lost 40% of their representation as a result of their well-known left-wing extremist positions, but party leader Yossi Sarid grasped the meaning of the result. He understood that the voters had loudly rejected the political suicide of the left and had done so in favor of a more pragmatic approach. On election night, Sarid resigned as party leader.

It is high time for Mitzna to follow his lead. His policies are bankrupt and have been rejected by the electorate in two consecutive elections. He is clueless as to the true will of the people, and he is unprepared to realize where the fault lies for Labor's dismal showing in the elections and their continued descent into the bowels of political history.

The Shinui-NRP agreement represents a new hope for reconciliation in Israel, and for a definition of Judaism that takes into account the many various sectors within our nation. It shows that leaders like Tommy Lapid and Effi Eitam, who have real solutions to offer society, can leave the posturing behind and begin to deal with real issues and realistic solutions. When the Labor party and the haredi parties can manage to accomplish the same thing, when they begin to offer real answers to societies demands, they will once again be able to have a say in charting the future course of the State and its people.


Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. Yehuda Poch is a journalist living in Israel. Reproduction in electronic or print format by permission of the author only.

Yehuda and Rebecca Poch

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