Magazine

Grumpy Old Man: The strong, silent type

People seem to want a viable political center. But where are its leaders?

Ehud Barak at Military ceremony
Photo by: Reuters
When I last parted my fingers to peek, Israel’s political center was still tearing itself apart like one of those Iranian centrifuges hit by Stuxnet.

Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, despite lip service to the contrary, seemed to be eyeing a return to the Likud like some other disgruntled party members while, from the sidelines, former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni issued a few tired slogans in response to new taxes as Haim Ramon tried to rally the rest of the party back to her and enlist yet a few others to the cause.

As for the Great Lite Hope, Yair Lapid showed signs of life only in his Friday newspaper columns and on his Facebook page.

It’s one thing to hold the deed to a nice-size chunk of Knesset seats or even just to have an entity that exists solely in some dusty binder down at the party registrar’s office. But there has to be someone with vision, someone with true leadership skills, someone with political cojones who is up to the task of securing for the people of this country – aside from the extremists and screwballs – what they need and want.

PEOPLE HAVE long believed that the emergence of a viable political center would finally break the relentless gravitational tug-of-war between two diametrically opposed and similar- sized black holes. They started referring to this possibility as the Big Bang. Every time some centrist party showed up, though, it seemed more like an improvised explosive device that sometimes went off as the political status quo lumbered by, but more often turned out to be a total dud. These parties generally represented narrow interests that ultimately failed to inspire sufficient enthusiasm, and they eventually fell apart or were sucked into one of the black holes.

One of the more promising was the Center Party. The Center Party espoused a relatively broad platform supporting an end to as much of the occupation as was safely possible, a freemarket economy within the parameters of social justice, and the separation of religion and state. It germinated from an idea that issued forth in the late 1990s, primarily from Tel Aviv mayor and Likud prince Roni Milo. It was injected with gravitas by the presence of another Likud prince, Dan Meridor, and given a full-field kick in the polls with the arrival of Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a first-rate bit’honist, the term used for senior veterans of the military and security services who are presumed to know a thing or two about protecting us once they go into politics.

Lipkin-Shahak had recently retired as chief of staff of the IDF. There were no Six Day Wars or Entebbes on his watch, but aside from several high-profile incidents (such as the accidental deaths of over 100 Lebanese civilians during Operation Grapes of Wrath, the She’ar Yashuv helicopter disaster and a sea commando mission in Lebanon that wiped out almost the entire raiding party) there were no major blunders – meaning his tenure was successful.

He was also extremely brave. Ehud Barak is considered Israel’s most decorated soldier because of the number of commendations he received; Lipkin-Shahak, though, was awarded a higher decoration for valor than the highest Barak ever won – and he was awarded it twice.

In addition, he was known to be awfully smart.

The best part, though, was the absence of even a trace of bluster. He was soft-spoken and didn’t brag. He had a purposeful stride but didn’t swagger. And despite the smarts, there was not a soupçon of know-it-all. He was the strong, silent type and he instilled a quiet sense of confidence and security that no one in the political sphere – then or now – could come close to matching.

I’M NOT EASILY categorized; politically, even less so. I fit in with neither the Left nor the Right. No dogma for me other than a Zionism that remains committed to a strong, democratic and egalitarian state where Jews can exercise sovereignty and feel safe, not a Zionism that’s been hijacked by any particular cause or school of thought. So I was thrilled when a political center, one based on pragmatism rather than emotion and on what’s smart rather than what’s merely right, emerged from the miasmal swamp that is Israeli politics.

And, tired of the empty wise-guy/tough-guy posturing that pervaded the first chapter of Bibi Netanyahu, Prime Minister – and continues to suffuse the second – I was ecstatic that this centrist entity had at its fore such an impressive man. (I like to believe that Lipkin- Shahak made the decision to go into politics because of a letter I sent him saying it was time for a leader with his qualities.) To make a long, sad story short, though, Lipkin-Shahak, for all his opinion-poll popularity, was deemed too inexperienced to go straight into the prime minister’s chair, for which there were still direct elections. So Yitzhak Mordechai, newly fired as defense minister by Netanyahu, was brought in to lead the party. But very quickly, long before he was ever identified as a sexual predator, Mordechai kissed a rabbi’s beard. The centrists, who had enjoyed the backing of a growing sector that was disgusted with religious coercion, ended up with just six Knesset seats. The party soon imploded over internal bickering and Lipkin- Shahak – who never got used to the filth and stench of the swamp and the fact that its inhabitants use knives and garrotes, not assault rifles – soon withdrew to cleaner, safer precincts.

It took a bit’honist with years of experience in navigating and surviving the murky depths to come anywhere close to effecting the Big Bang, when Ariel Sharon, finally prime minister and suddenly aware that being in the driver’s seat meant the occasional use of brakes, threw an IED of his own into the swamp by announcing a total withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The shock wave may not have realigned the stars, but it certainly realigned Israeli politics, eventually leading to the formation of Kadima, which attracted a sufficient number of moderates from the Likud and hawks from Labor to make it truly centrist and a viable player.

To make another long, sad story short, though, Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke before elections could be held. Ehud Olmert took over and led Kadima to victory and a coalition, but then led the country through a disastrous war against Hezbollah before resigning in the face of multiple counts of corruption that had been nipping at his heels for years.

The saddest part, perhaps, is that Olmert left Kadima to Dumb and Dumber. Livni won the next election but exhibited too stiff a neck to be able to form a coalition and, instead of presenting workable alternatives to Netanyahu’s policies while opposition leader, she did little more than bark and bay from the sidelines and watch her party’s popularity slide. When the utterly colorless Mofaz toppled her, he quickly called Netanyahu a liar, then married him, then divorced him, and now seems to want to crawl back to him as Kadima disintegrates.

IT’S NOT that the country doesn’t want a political middle – if Kadima won a plurality in the last elections it means there are a lot more people like me. But where are our leaders? For a brief, shining moment, a rational, smart and realistic approach to Israeli politics had met its anti-Bibi and anti-Barak in the form of a quiet, brainy hero who never seemed to let any of his remarkable talents and abilities go to his head.

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, where are you? And if, understandably, you want no more of that swamp, can you recommend someone else? I’ll be happy to throw in the nose clips.


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