Numerous respected senior defense officials have proved disappointing as politicians; think Shaul Mofaz, Yitzhak Mordechai, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Avi Dichter, to name just a few. This inevitably raises some qualms: Were these people actually competent to oversee our security? In that sense, last week’s otherwise disgraceful rant
by former Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin was oddly reassuring: Perhaps they’re perfectly competent as defense officials; they just don’t grasp what politics is all about.
Diskin’s main gripe about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak is their “messianic” fervor to halt Iran’s nuclear program, as he put it in a previous rant
. Last week, he again complained that Netanyahu is “possessed” by Iran and “wants to go down in history” for stopping its nuclear program. Fundamentally, he considers both men egomaniacs; he’s also appalled by their love of luxury: Last week, he assailed them for smoking cigars and even having an occasional drink at “sensitive” meetings; earlier, he lambasted their pricey homes.
We’ll put aside Diskin’s blatant political bias, as evidenced by the fact that he slams Barak and Netanyahu for their luxury homes and cigars while lauding Ehud Olmert – a man no less enamored of money and its pleasures, and who, unlike the others, has faced multiple indictments for abusing his office to secure them. After all, Diskin’s earlier rant had already shown his views on the “peace process” to be far closer to Olmert’s than to Netanyahu’s.
Let’s even overlook his own asinine obsession with cigars and liquor, though it certainly disqualifies him as a judge of leadership. After all, Winston Churchill – who, incidentally, was derided as an anti-Nazi obsessive by the hordes who applauded “peace in our time” – was notoriously fond of liquor and cigars, while Hitler neither drank nor smoked; politically speaking, such personal habits aren’t proof of anything.
But beyond this, there’s a fundamental truth Diskin clearly didn’t grasp: Almost all top-level politicians have extremely outsized egos, and many are obsessive over certain issues. Why? Because reaching the top in politics is a grueling business that entails numerous sacrifices: You work long hours, forfeit your privacy, endure endless public, etc. And people generally won’t pay such a price unless they have some idea or policy they care passionately about promoting and believe themselves uniquely qualified to promote it.
Take, for instance, Diskin’s admired Olmert: He is obsessed with the need to create a Palestinian state, even declaring
that Israel is “finished” if the two-state solution collapses; Netanyahu is nowhere near that apocalyptic. Olmert also has a messianic faith in his own abilities, undisturbed by inconvenient facts: Witness his claim
that only his legal troubles him kept him from making peace with the Palestinian Authority president, though Mahmoud Abbas himself famously said he rejected
Olmert’s proposal because “The gaps were wide.”
Or take Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich, who is possessed by the desire to promote “social justice.” She talks about nothing else voluntarily; when pressed about other issues in media interviews, she returns to her preferred topic as soon as possible. And she, too, has an outsized ego; she is absolutely convinced that she is right and her opponents are wrong.
What makes these qualities so common among politicians, however, isn’t just that few people would endure the downsides of politics without them. It’s also that politicians have to do something defense officials don’t: make policy choices.
Defense officials never have to decide what
to do, only how. The “what” is either inherent in the nature of the job or determined by the elected government. Diskin’s job, for instance, was to fight Palestinian terror; he had considerable leeway as to means, but no discretion whatsoever about the end.
In contrast, a prime minister’s first and most important job is making policy choices. Important though implementation is, you can’t implement anything until you’ve decided what to do. And since no government can do everything at once, priorities must be set. But when confronted with a host of problems that all look pressing – Iran, the Palestinians, the economy, etc. – you frankly need a bit of egomania and obsessiveness to avoid being paralyzed by indecision. In limited doses (i.e., short of focusing on one issue to the exclusion of all else), these qualities enable a politician to decide that however important they all seem, this
issue should be top priority while that can stay on the back burner. Similarly, these qualities help him to avoid being distracted by the press of other issues and stay focused on his main objective.
The question, therefore, isn’t whether a politician is “possessed” by a given issue; it’s whether he’s possessed by the right
issue, and how effectively he pursues it. This, essentially, is what the public judges when it votes.
Personally, I think the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of a regime that advocates genocide
is a superb issue for an Israeli premier to obsess about. Indeed, to do otherwise would be to ignore a fundamental lesson of Jewish history: When people say they intend to kill you, they sometimes mean it.
Moreover, as I’ve explained before
, Netanyahu’s Iran policy has thus far been extremely responsible and effective: Unlike the predecessors whom Diskin so admires, Olmert and Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu has succeeded in putting Iran high on the global agenda and getting the world to impose harsh sanctions on it. That’s important even if sanctions ultimately fail to do the job, because it’s easier to muster support for military action if nonmilitary means have been tried first.
In short, Netanyahu has chosen an eminently reasonable issue to obsess about and has thus far pursued his obsession sensibly and effectively – something you couldn’t say, for instance, about the numerous premiers whose peace-process obsessions have had disastrous consequences not just for Israel’s security, but also for its international standing
. That makes him superior to most of the competition despite his numerous faults.
And that’s precisely why he’s now poised to win a third term, while so many of Diskin’s fellow defense professionals flamed out quickly: Unlike them, he actually does understand what politics is all about.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.