On Democratic Legitimacy

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 6, 1996 | Go to article overview

On Democratic Legitimacy


Yesterday, Americans went to the polls to elect a president. Everybody knows the rules: One person, one vote in each state, with the winner of a majority in the electoral college the constitutionally empowered head of the executive branch. It's democracy in action.

The loser will have no official role in future policy decisions, except at the pleasure of the president, and expects none. Nor, of course, will he have any place in the new administration. The winner will govern and the loser will go home. When foreign governments and international organizations send representatives to Washington, they will present themselves not to the loser but to the winner.

Obvious, no? Except that when it comes to Israel, the only democratic country in the Middle East, all bets are off.

Six months ago, Benjamin Netanyahu won the prime ministership of Israel - the ninth person to be prime minister and the first to be directly elected by the people of the Jewish state. In a region known for tyranny and rule by terror, it was yet another orderly and democratic election.

But rather than being accorded the customary deference and respect that is his due as the elected leader of a free people, from the moment of Mr. Netanyahu's victory, he has faced an international effort to destabilize and undermine his leadership - to cast into question his very legitimacy as Israel's leader.

By any measure, it was clear months in advance, both within Israel and beyond its borders, that a Netanyahu victory would be undesirable to the point of being unthinkable to the most fervent champions of the Mideast "peace process." Nevertheless, Israeli voters went to the polls in huge numbers, as is that country's habit, and elected him. He campaigned on a platform of greater internal security as an accompaniment to the continuation of the peace process with the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party have not renounced the peace process - but they are hardly its embodiment, either, as Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin of Labor were: the sacrosanct peace process that must be the solution to the Arab-Israel conflict, according to which a Palestinian state must be established; it must encompass all of the West Bank and Gaza; its capital must be East Jerusalem. And since Mr. Netanyahu has been a critic of the "land for peace" theory of negotiation, and since he has concerned himself more with the practical outcome of negotiations and their effect on Israel as a whole rather than with the process of negotiating as such, he is, eo ipso, not the man to lead Israel. The result has been an unending barrage of criticism, derision and blame heaped upon the current government for any and all problems, real and imagined.

Questions about Mr. Netanyahu's decision-making arose the moment he was sworn in. A believer government reformer, he tried to update an overly bureaucratic and ineffective political system. One of his ideas was the creation of two councils - one for security and one for economics -whereby experts in both fields would discuss policy and answer to him. But since his critics dismiss Mr. Netanyahu as a conservative, hardline, nationalist right-winger, they found it convenient to present his ideas in this area as an obnoxious if not tyrannical attempt to amass power in the prime minister's office; they portray Mr. Netanyahu more as a budding dictator than a freely elected leader.

Within Israel, undermining Mr. Netanyahu's leadership has become a sport. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres has taken it upon himself to conduct back-door diplomacy by meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. After the meeting, Mr. Peres declared that instead of bringing a message, he was "the message." Translation: never mind about Mr. Netanyahu.

The countries that surround Israel, meanwhile, have made it painfully obvious that they are unwilling to deal with Mr. Netanyahu as Israel's leader. …

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