In a classic episode of Seinfeld, Kramer is berating Jerry for hesitating to date the girl whose boyfriend is in a coma. "Well," Jerry explains. "I wasn't sure of the proper coma etiquette."
"Simple," Kramer answers. "You give the guy twenty-four hours to get out of it. After that, all his stuff is up for grabs."
We are witnessing one of the most fascinating applications of coma etiquette; in fact, it might better be called coma politics. An entire country, in decisions attended by momentous consequences, is deferring major political shifts in deference to the guy in the coma. They not only won't take his girlfriend, they won't even touch his policy and the process he got underway.
No, I am not talking about Fidel Castro, who is still a few gibberings and droolings short of a solid coma. The tragicomic video they released of him doddering around the hospital corridors in an age-inappropriate track suit affirms his commitment to Dr. Alzheimer's rigorous recovery regimen. That octogenarian is still the octopus smothering Cuba in his tentacles.
The politician who is running a country "in his sleep" is none other than that legendary military tactician, parliamentary provocateur and general bull-in-the-china-shop of Israeli public life, Ariel Sharon. January will mark the completion of a solid two years in a coma, an amazingly long time for an 80-year-old body to cling to life. His family will not consider pulling the plug under any circumstances; they are convinced that he will pull yet another phoenix-like rebirth out of his seemingly inexhaustible bag of tricks.
The Israeli man-in-the-street is less sanguine about Sharon's prospects. If he awakens, people expect little; even lucidity would be a bonus. Yet there is an unspoken agreement that as long as his coma lasts, his policy will not be jettisoned.
THE CURRENT PRIME MINISTER, Ehud Olmert, began his tenure by virtue of Sharon's sudden seizure. He was later reelected by invoking the spirit of the unconscious leader.
Now Olmert is beset by one corruption scandal after another. He has a collection of rare pens, each worth thousands of dollars. Every time a corporate lobbyist wants a favor, he drops by with the gift of a new pen. That way no one can accuse him of pocketing actual cash. Then it was revealed that his personal apartment in Jerusalem was sold to him for a fraction of market value by a builder whom Olmert had granted development rights on that property back when he was mayor of Jerusalem. Thus far, the slew of special prosecutors has refrained from issuing indictments.
On top of Olmert's personal weakness at this time, the policy of returning Gaza to the Palestinians unilaterally and then continuing to negotiate has proven to be a laughable sham. The whole idea was that having Gaza would increase the area under the control of Palestinian leaders, so they could establish democratic institutions of the sort that would put them just a treaty short of statehood. This was their chance to impress us with their maturity, their wherewithal, their modernity, their realism.
Instead we get a huge breeding-ground for terrorists, persistent rocket launching into Israel and general insolence. This past Saturday a huge crowd, estimated to be over ten thousand, gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hamas and protest against the idea of negotiating with Israel.
To top matters off, the Palestinian Authority no longer even controls Gaza. Hamas had won some of the key governing posts in an election, then forcibly ejected the PA people a few months later, executing a number of them along the way.
None of this has fazed President Bush and Condoleezza Rice, who are committed to the phantasmagoric view that if Olmert cuts a deal with Abbas, Hamas will decide it pays to go along. Israelis know better than to buy such a mirage, a chimera really.
Yet there has been no concerted grass-roots effort to oust Olmert, even when his poll numbers dropped to 12 percent, down around U.S. Congress levels. Analysts offer this or that reason for the curious reluctance of the population to dump the guy, everything from complex vote-counting calculus to sociological hypotheses about how hard it is to part from wishful thinking. All those theories have some truth to them but the real answer, I believe, is something far less tangible.
It is simple politeness. Coma etiquette. The man is still alive and no one has the heart to announce officially that although he sleeps on, his dream has already died.
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