Published by The Freeman Center
The Maccabean Online
Political Analysis and Commentary
Democracy and Disengagement
by Evelyn Gordon
THE JERUSALEM POST Jul. 20, 2005
A friend asked me last weekend what disengagement opponents sought to accomplish by blocking roads, clashing with security personnel and urging soldiers to disobey orders. Don\'t they understand, she asked, that such actions merely alienate the public, and in a democracy, the key to success is winning over public opinion? I still do not know whether to laugh or cry over that question. The answer, of course, is that these protesters have no interest in public opinion, because they do not believe that democracy works. This is a generation that has been taught to scorn democracy – not by their rabbis, but by Ariel Sharon. And this may yet prove to be disengagement\'s most devastating legacy.
A brief history of the plan suffices to show why many protesters today are disillusioned with democracy. It begins with the January 2003 elections, in which the central campaign issue was Labor\'s proposal for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which Sharon adamantly opposed. There was no violence during this campaign; people on both sides canvassed for votes in approved democratic fashion. And the results were unequivocal: Sharon\'s Likud Party, running on an anti-withdrawal platform, won more than twice as many seats as Labor, giving Sharon the largest electoral victory in Israel\'s history.
Then, in December 2003, Sharon suddenly adopted Labor\'s unilateral withdrawal platform – the very policy he was elected to block. He thereby single-handedly nullified the democratic victory won by pullout opponents 11 months earlier.
Nevertheless, these activists did not lose faith in democracy. When Sharon announced a referendum of Likud members on his plan and pledged to abide by the results, thousands of pullout opponents, in exemplary democratic fashion, volunteered dozens of hours of their time to go house to house and persuade Likud members to oppose the plan. Once again, there was no violence. And once again, they won a stunning victory: Within weeks, polls showing a 60 percent majority in the Likud for disengagement became a 60% majority against it at the ballot box.
But Sharon, this time aided by other Likud MKs, once again set this democratic victory at naught. Ignoring his pre-referendum promise, he brought the plan to a vote in the cabinet and Knesset, where he and his cronies defied party members\' unequivocal directive and approved it.
Thus in the only two electoral contests ever held on disengagement, pullout opponents won decisive victories through strictly democratic means. Yet the plan continues to sail toward implementation. So thousands of anti-disengagement activists have drawn the only possible conclusion: Democracy does not work – because no matter how many democratic contests you win, those in power will still do as they please unless forcibly prevented.
The media and law-enforcement agencies, meanwhile, have exacerbated this disillusionment.
THE MEDIA did so by consistently vilifying even peaceful opposition to the pullout. For instance, it routinely describes Likud MKs who honored the referendum results by voting against disengagement as "rebels" – the implication being that it is illegitimate to prefer the voters\' will to that of the prime minister. But how can one argue that democracy works if it is illegitimate for MKs to honor their voters\' wishes? Similarly, Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post both declared last August that the Likud Convention acted illegitimately in vetoing Sharon\'s proposal to bring Labor into the government in order to secure a majority for disengagement. But how can democracy work if it is illegitimate for party organs to respect the will of party members, who explicitly rejected disengagement? Or consider Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit\'s comment on the referendum. Shavit is a centrist, not a radical leftist. Yet he wrote that "the settlers\'" victory was "unforgivable," destroyed all "justification for talking with them" and necessitated "resolute" action against them. But how can democracy work if winning a democratic vote is "unforgivable" and justifies treating the victors as pariahs? And the above, unfortunately, are only a few of literally hundreds of examples.
The police, for their part, have periodically suppressed a cornerstone of democracy: peaceful protest. Preventing 300 buses of protesters from reaching Monday\'s rally was arguably justifiable, since the rally\'s declared goal – a mass march into Gaza – was illegal. But no such defense could be offered when, for instance, police prevented a bus full of settlers from traveling to Netanya in March to carry out a democratic campaign par excellence: personal visits to hundreds of residents to argue against disengagement. That news spread like wildfire among anti-disengagement activists. And how are such activists then supposed to believe in democracy? Equally problematic was the arrest and indictment of hundreds of young activists who blocked roads in recent weeks. Since blocking roads is illegal, this would seem unexceptionable. Yet these activists know full well that the legal establishment tolerates illegal road-blocking in support of other causes. In summer 2003, for instance, the Histadrut organized dozens of demonstrations nationwide in which its members blocked major roads to protest pension reform. Yet nobody arrested or indicted these demonstrators.
And just this Tuesday, IMI workers blocked Jerusalem roads and stormed the Prime Minister\'s Office, injuring a policeman. Yet instead of being arrested, they were rewarded with a NIS 270 million government grant – which the Treasury had hitherto refused. So how are people supposed to respect democracy when laws that should apply equally to all are enforced with such blatant selectivity? The accumulation of evidence over the past two years has been overwhelming: Israel\'s power centers – the politicians, the media and the justice system – may pay lip service to democracy, but they have no qualms about riding roughshod over its most fundamental principles anytime the democratic process fails to produce the results they desire. Thus when anti-disengagement protesters refuse to be the only suckers playing by the democratic ground rules, they are merely applying the lessons that the country\'s best and brightest have taught them.
And the rest of us – all those Israelis who truly want a democratic country – will be paying the price of those lessons for a long time to come.