Democracy functions best when a government has strong charismatic leadership and when its actions need to be justified to a strong, viable, constructive opposition. This is especially true in a parliamentary democracy, particularly one that functions within a multi-party setting.
The need for a charismatic leader is fairly obvious without examining in detail Max Weber’s classical discussion of political charisma. The purpose and role of the opposition is less understood but equally critical.
Over its 63-year history as a nation, Israel has been led by many truly charismatic leaders, from David Ben-Gurion, to Golda Meir, to Menachem Begin, to Yitzchak Rabin, to Ariel Sharon. Based on their political behavior this list has even included for at least part of their tenures Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu. While one might have expected this during the infancy of a new democracy, the fact that it has persisted throughout the years is rather remarkable.
In addition, these leaders have functioned best when faced with a strong political opposition. During much of its earlier history, for example, Israel had voices in the opposition who themselves have been charismatic, including Sharon and Netanyahu, and especially Begin. Begin kept Ben-Gurion honest and accountable. Even Ben-Gurion’s successors knew that Begin would hold their feet to the political fire.
The role of the opposition, especially in a multi-party system, is to hold the government accountable at all times for its actions. It must be able to have a core of support and true leadership ready and able to challenge the government — not necessarily one that is a constant threat to bringing down the governing coalition, but one that is sure to hold the coalition accountable.
Today’s official opposition in the Israeli Knesset, led by Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party, is weak, dogmatic, and uncreative. So long as it is joined by several smaller parties, the Netanyahu government hardly needs to pay it any attention. The government faces far more challenges from among its own coalition partners than it does from the official opposition.
Today in Israel there is no alternative voice. When a government faces little or no serious opposition, it can frequently act with total impunity. While it has ultimate accountability to the voting public when it stands for re-election, at an operating level a government without a real opposition is totally free to conduct and make policies without concern or challenges.
It has been largely this absence of a viable opposition that has enabled the Netanyahu government to be so dismissive of constructive peace moves toward the Palestinians. At a geopolitical level there have been numerous factors that have militated against an active peace initiative; nevertheless, there has rarely been a time when there were so many easy ways for Israel to publically demonstrate its willingness to engage its opponents in peace at no cost to its security.
Over the past week alone, there have been initiatives floated by the French foreign minister, rumored Washington talks, and criticism from at least three former high-level Israeli security and military chiefs. The Netanyahu government has dismissed all of these options and critiques.
While Netanyahu prefers to articulate his opposition in terms of immediate security needs vis-a-vis Syria or Egypt or other Arab unrest, his only real political concern is among his coalition’s right wing opponents. They have become only more and more obstreperous to any peace initiatives, while the real political opposition is totally ineffective.
Meanwhile, the international pressure will only increase and the ugly September confrontation at the UN looms.
When the costs of inaction are so high and bold gestures so low, it is time for charismatic leadership to act.