Thursday, December 02, 2004

A Question of Democracy

There is in all democracies the potential for conflict between the basic principle of majority rule and the necessity of leaders to lead. It is not for them merely to echo what the voters who elected them may desire, if only because changed conditions require leaders to act without knowing what the electorate might think or, at times, in opposition to those who put them in power. Nor can leaders blithely decide that the preference of the electorate is of small consequence. The ideal of representative government tips the balance somewhat but certainly not completely in favor of leaders being allowed to act independently, the notion being that elections serve as a reality check. Where public opinion is sharply divided and there is a good likelihood that much of the public will feel bitter and excluded if leaders go into uncharted territory, there is ample reason for caution.

We know that with his Gaza withdrawal plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has defied his political base and party, even turned his back on commitments made with gusto and without reservations. He is, in short, acting as a leader, sharply adjusting his sails because the world - or at least the Middle East - has changed and also because where he now sits and what he now sees differ from the perspective he had previously. It appears that Israelis support him by a wide margin, which is to say that on Gaza he is not getting too far ahead of public opinion.

Getting out of Gaza is a substantial challenge. Mr. Sharon and the rest of us do not know how difficult this will be. He is already faced with new issues and pressures that may make the Gaza withdrawal look easy. Across the globe there are calls for even bolder action by Israel, for substantial withdrawal from the West Bank along the lines of President Bush' Road Map and proposals that were advanced by President Clinton. Diplomats and editorial writers are underscoring the view that Yasir Arafat's death and the installation of new Palestinian leadership have created an opportunity that must not be allowed to pass. It has also said that Israel must act boldly because of the mess in Iraq, fears of Islamic radicalism, Iran's nuclear threat and the strong desire among European leaders and presumably the White House to find a way to reestablish the shattered Western alliance. Israel, in short, is being asked to make the world a safer place, perhaps by making Israel a less safe place.

There is no way of knowing whether further Israeli territorial concessions will result in the dawn of a new day of moderation in Islam or de-quagmire Iraq or convince the Ayatollahs to pray more and not make nuclear weapons. There are, for sure, abundant reasons for skepticism whether any Israeli actions might achieve these desirable goals. On the other hand, it may be conceded that Israeli concessions will beget a brave new world where, to borrow a bit from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Americans, French, British, Germans and Russians will once more be friends. However we may look at these global matters, what Israel does needs to be decided by Israel's leaders.

This is not some fussy point about democracy. Public support in Israel for additional West Bank withdrawals is obviously narrower than it is for a Gaza withdrawal. In terms of people and cost, West Bank complications and implications dwarf what Israel will face in Gaza. There are additional reasons for caution, probably the most powerful being the current disequilibrium in Palestinian and Middle East affairs. Because Arafat is gone and it is not known what and also who will ensue, Israel needs to proceed super-slowly. It is preferable to see what happens after the Gaza withdrawal, particularly whether Hamas will act with responsibility and restraint. There is a decent prospect for internecine Palestinian conflict and it would be terrible if Israel were caught in the middle with less land to serve as a buffer.

Ariel Sharon knows all of this. I suspect that he is telling much the same to the Bush Administration, but saying little publicly, his silence being recompense for the U.S. having provided strong political cover for Israel at the United Nations and elsewhere. In short, Israel has forfeited some of its leeway, even sovereignty.

It is customary in Jewish circles which strongly favor President Bush to regard his support for Israel as uni-dimensional, as being unencumbered by any pressures on Israel to make further concessions. This is a naive reading of the situation. Washington's public persona is one of constant support for the Jewish State and this is expressed with few reservations and with much sincerity. Yet, there is also the ongoing business of diplomacy, the quiet contacts that amount to a road map or agenda for further Israeli concessions.

When Prime Minister Tony Blair came visiting soon after our elections, he explicitly insisted on concrete steps by Israel to promote what he regards as Middle East peace. It is not credible to think that Mr. Bush told him, "Tony, not now. Let's see how Iraq works out and only then should we turn our attention to Israel and the Palestinians."

The prevailing diplomatic climate is as treacherous as any Israeli leaders have faced in a long while. Mr. Sharon should proceed without delay with the Gaza withdrawal because there are few reasons for staying there and many for getting out. Palestinians now control large parts of the West Bank. They should at long last proclaim a Palestinian State and take seriously the responsibility that statehood brings. Israel should move slowly as it assesses the character of the new Palestinian leadership and the extent of intra-Palestinian unity. Until the playing field is clearer there should be no additional territorial concessions. In democracies, leaders must lead. They also must be prudent and aware of the risks and they must be mindful of the responsibility to at least try to avoid exacerbating internal strife.