Democracy is the best system yet devised for allowing people of widely divergent views to live together in one polity. That is true, however, only so long as citizens perceive the playing field to be level. For that reason, the success of a democracy depends to a very great degree on the process of decision-making - - i.e., the rules of the game.
The original United States Constitution, for instance, dealt almost entirely with powers of the various branches of government and the relations between them. The first ten amendments forming the Bill of Rights were only ratified two years after the Constitution itself.
While formal adherence to the rules of procedure is a necessary condition for democratic legitimacy, it is not by itself sufficient. When a large body of citizens perceives the rules to have been manipulated to thwart their will or to foreclose public debate, legitimacy plummets. That was the case, for instance, with the first Oslo Accords. Knesset support for the Accords was secured only by offering substantial blandishments to two obscure MKs elected to the Knesset on the platform of the hard-right Tsomet Party.
The basic democratic principle of majority rule surely does not require a national referendum on every major issue. Because referenda offer only two options - - yes or no - - formulation of the questions is notoriously difficult. And removal of particular issues, particularly budgetary ones, from the legislature can wreak havoc on the entire legislative process.
Yet given the bitter divisions sure to be aroused by the Gaza withdrawal and the irreversible nature of the withdrawal once undertaken, the failure to conduct a national referendum was a major mistake. And that mistake was compounded by the total lack of a focused public debate.
From the first, Prime Minister Sharon offered only the sketchiest of outlines of the strategic and tactical thinking behind "unilateral" withdrawal. He did not explain what changed from the time of his overwhelming electoral victory over Amram Mitza, who had campaigned on a platform of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.
Even the truism offered to explain why prime ministers elected on right-wing platforms invariably move to the center – "the view from here [the prime minister's chair] is not the same as the view from there [leader of the opposition]" – does not suffice. Sharon was already prime minister when he proclaimed Netzarim to be no less a part of Israel than Tel Aviv. In any event, assurances that matters look different from the prime minister's office form a poor basis for public debate.
The task of explaining the Gaza withdrawal was left to a series of unofficial surrogates, such as Ehud Olmert and Dov Weisglass, and done in a piecemeal fashion. Most glaringly, answers were never offered to the many concerns raised about post-withdrawal security.
In part, the prime minister's reticence is understandable. Whatever he revealed of his strategic thinking to the Israeli public he would have also had to reveal to the Palestinians. Even more important, to the extent that the withdrawal is predicated on various diplomatic understandings with President Bush, the latter surely insisted that those agreements remain secret.
To say that the prime minister never made the strategic case for the withdrawal is not to suggest that he has no long-range plan or that the Gaza withdrawal was devised to keep him out of the legal hot soup. A man who has devoted his life to the defense of the state of Israel cannot be suspected now of endangering the state out of narrow personal interests.
Nor is it to argue that Sharon could not have prevailed in a referendum after a full public debate. Quite likely he would have. Others, notably Hillel Halkin, have advanced plausible scenarios under which the diplomatic gains of the withdrawal arguably outweigh the short and long-term security threats.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that the crucial issues were never joined in an open public debate, either in the Knesset or via a referendum. That democratic deficit was exacerbated by the mainstream media, much of which answered Amnon Abramovitz's call to protect Sharon "like an etrog."
Rather than fulfilling its role in a democracy of providing citizens with the information necessary for informed judgment, the media consistently downplayed the crucial security concerns raised by senior military and intelligence personnel. Also ignored was evidence casting doubt on the hypothesized diplomatic understandings with the United States. Opposition to the withdrawal was portrayed as driven exclusively by religious messianism.
The failure to conduct a full debate over the Gaza withdrawal has frayed Israeli society to the breaking point. It pushed the debate from the Knesset and the ballot box into the streets. Sure some would have taken to the streets even in the face of defeat in a referendum, but their support and legitimacy would have been dramatically reduced.
By failing to forcefully provide his own narrative for the withdrawal, Sharon left the way open for others, like Yossi Sarid, to project their own narratives on the withdrawal: withdrawal as the first step towards redemption for Israel's original sin of expanding beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines, the so – called "Auschwitz borders."
Nothing could be more dangerous for our long-range survival, or more inimical to Sharon’s own strategic vision, than for Sarid’s narrative of Jews as having stolen the Land to become the dominant Israeli one.