May 30, 2004

In a democracy, the citizens can tell the government what it has to do.Everyone knows that we must make a determined decision on the borders of the country, but the government is incapable of deciding. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon revealed this weakness when he proposed to Labor leader Shimon Peres that he bring his party back into the government. Walking in the dark is less scary when those who are lost hold each other’s hand, but walking together does not make the decision where to go any easier. Peres answered Sharon wisely: be brave and decide. If you decide, we will support you even without being your partners.

The lack of the ability to decide is a 30-year-old phenomenon. It began with the war that brought down the hegemony of the labor movement without producing a party similar to it in power. Complicated social processes caused Israeli society, close to the time of the Yom Kippur War, to divide into sectors. The result: the political establishment lost its ability to make decisions of an historical dimension. More important – it lost the ability to implement them.

The two extraordinary decisions that were nevertheless made are linked to Menahem Begin: the peace agreement with Egypt and the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear plant. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Begin was forged as a national leader during the period that preceded the establishment of the state, and was trained to make fateful decisions that ran contrary to the consensus.

Yitzhak Rabin decided in favor of a far-reaching compromise with the Palestinians, but it is unlikely he would have been able to implement the Oslo accords even were he able to enjoy many more years of life. The opposition to his moves was intense, and public support was weak. Ehud Barak withdrew the army from Lebanon, but it was not he who prepared public opinion to accept this. This was done by four women who served as a public seismograph. Such encouraging phenomenon make up, to a degree, for the lack of a government with the ability to decide.

It is worth noticing this, because frequently we complain about the little influence that civil organizations have. “What is the point of a petition and what is the point of a demonstration,” goes the conventional wisdom, “In any case, ‘they’ do what ‘they’ want.”

Even a cursory glance shows that this criticism is not true, because at least one other step of enormous importance began recently only because determined citizens went to battle for it, until they forced the government to comply.

The reference is to the separation fence, which is a fine example of how the influence of the avant-garde expands and grows. The argument over its route makes us forget the fact that until two years ago, almost all the senior military and political echelon was opposed.

How did this change come about? The citizens lit the match that kindled the flames. They held meetings, drafted their position, shaped a PR strategy, sent e-mails, got experts and well-known people on their side, persuaded the MKs – and ultimately, caused the idea that was considered folly until not long before, to become the consensus.

This is the path that Ami Ayalon is taking with his partner Sari Nusseibeh and there are groups pulling this way and that. It turns out that there is no vacuum in a democratic society: when the government falters, the citizens come along and tell it what it has to do.

(Originally appeared in Yediot Aharonot)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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