'How does an Israeli male commit suicide?" Uzi Dayan asks, invoking a well-known riddle to illustrate the ills of the country's leadership.
"By jumping from his ego to his IQ," he answers his own question, smiling.
We are sitting in his office - a two-room apartment in the upscale residential building adjoining the Sheraton City Tower Hotel in Ramat Gan - which serves as the headquarters of Tafnit, the movement/political party Dayan founded in May 2005. Israelis who hadn't heard of Tafnit ("turning point") prior to this year's parliamentary elections became familiar with it via its almost comical campaign broadcasts, in which Dayan - whose platform was, and still is, "a new agenda for Israel" - appeared on camera with a strip of black duct tape over his mouth. This he proceeded to pull off, before declaring an "end to silence" on the issue of corruption.
Though the "no-more-sealed-lips" gimmick was the source of some amusement - and though Tafnit did not garner enough votes to pass the electoral threshold for the 17th Knesset - Dayan and his message were taken extremely seriously by many pundits and much of the public.
It was not uncommon to hear floating voters express ambivalence about supporting the retired major-general with as impressive a concern for civilian affairs as an illustrious military background (his positions included heading the IDF Planning Division and the Central Command; serving as deputy chief of general staff; heading the National Security Council; and advising prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. Since retiring from the army three years ago, he has been the president of the Zionist Council in Israel; the founder and president of the Sderot Conference for Social and Economic Policy; the head of the Chugey Sayarut youth organization, and is involved in the nonprofit organization "Education 0-6" and dealing with the families of the kidnapped soldiers - all jobs for which he says he receives no salary, thanks to a "very good pension from the IDF" and extra caution where corruption is concerned.
On the one hand, here was a serious, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy (Moshe Dayan's nephew, in fact) voicing disgust over dirty politicking - something that more and more people were coming to feel was sullying the system.
On the other hand, could "Mr. Clean" guarantee that a ballot placed for him wasn't going to end up in the waste-bin along with so many other protest votes? Well, no, he couldn't. And so they didn't.
Which is not to say that, following his defeat, Dayan then disappeared from the radar - or TV - screen. On the contrary, one is hard pressed these days to turn on any channel without seeing the 58-year-old Kochav Yair resident pounding on one round table or another, and insisting that the current "triumvirate" of the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff "has to go."
In an hour-long interview, Dayan presented his outline - in commanding-officer style - for an alternative: a group of people with a centrist agenda and "national responsibility" who possess "high enough IQs and low enough egos" to rally around an agreed-upon leader and work as a team to tackle Israel's external and internal threats.
How does a military man like yourself shift his focus to social issues? It seems that you and Defense Minister Amir Peretz have undergone opposite processes.
I served in the army for 36 years. I fought in all the country's wars from 1967 onwards. I was wounded three times. That chapter is long - perhaps too long. But it was what I wanted to do.
Later, I headed the National Security Council. During that time, I developed a clear picture of the overall condition of Israeli society. And I reached the conclusion that the country's main problem is the lack of a national agenda. What we have is a defense agenda that steers everything else. I worked with five prime ministers: Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, none of whom had any real civilian agenda. In 2002, I conducted a serious project, in cooperation with all the ministries, to evaluate the state of our national security, and one of its strongest statements was that the greatest threats to Israel are the [poor] condition of its education system, a growing societal inequality and increasing corruption.
Are the three connected?
Yes, in the sense that education is the foundation of the nation's entire infrastructure - that which provides equal opportunities. When the education system deteriorates, it is impossible to provide the young with equal-opportunity tools. This, in turn, causes a widening of social gaps.
Corruption is indirectly connected to the other two. The more it grows, the less we are able to get to the above items on the national agenda. Which is why it is "Public Enemy Number One."
Before the [recent] war [in Lebanon], it was hard to persuade people that this was the case. Though perceived as immoral, corruption was considered a victimless crime. Since the war, the public has begun to make the connection between political corruption and governmental neglect - neglect of the home front; neglect of the reservists; and even neglect of the individual.
Corruption is now perceived as a crime with victims?
Yes. And that it is we who are the victims.
You say that corruption is growing. But is it really on the rise, or merely more publicized? After all, political back-room wheeling and dealing was just as common in the early days of the state as it is now. In fact, everybody's livelihood hinged on paying dues to the right party, particularly when Labor was in power up until the 1977 Likud takeover.
Well, yes, corruption has been around as long as human beings. In Israel, it used to be more aimed at strengthening the party line than lining one's pocket. And there was much more shame associated with it. In fact, people caught in the act were capable of killing themselves. I'm not advocating that today, of course. Anyway, [he laughs] there'd be no room in the graveyards. What I do advocate, however, is a return to the shame and fear associated with it.
And there's no question that it has been on a steady rise in the last few years. Look at our international ratings. Today, we're at 34th place, when last year we placed 28th.
One problem has been our defeatist sense that nothing can be done about it, though that attitude has begun changing.
Another problem is the way the government is formed. Most of the coalition consists of Knesset members who weren't elected by the public.
Isn't what you're describing the fault of the electoral system?
Indeed, it's the best reason for changing the electoral system. We [Tafnit] support a combination regional-national system, according to which the voter not only elects a party, but also chooses the order of the Knesset candidates on a party list. This isn't a perfect system, but it's much better than the current one, because it returns the power to the voter, and makes the candidate much more accountable to constituents.
There also has to be a much smaller government - at the moment, I believe ours is the largest in the world - and cabinet seats have to be separate from Knesset membership.
This move has to be undertaken cautiously, since we've already been burned by such changes in the past. And it has to be carried out by people with integrity. In the words of [novelist and England's first and only Jewish prime minister] Benjamin Disraeli: "When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, laws are broken."
Aren't people only disturbed by the corruption of leaders whose policies they oppose?
There is indeed a tendency here to believe that the end justifies the means. The attitude is: "Look, that guy may lack integrity, but he serves my interests." This is problematic, because ultimately, everyone is harmed by corruption.
The way to fight this attitude, among others, is to educate people not to vote for corrupt candidates, because doing so will eventually backfire. The trouble is that certain corrupt acts are perceived as such, while others aren't. The most blatant example of the latter is sexual misconduct, as in the cases of President Moshe Katsav and former justice minister Haim Ramon. In a survey we conducted, respondents defined corruption as the granting of [undeserved] benefits, or nepotism and the like, but not as taking advantage of one's authority through sex.
Does sexual misconduct really constitute corruption?
Yes. The abuse of power in relation to subordinates is very corrupt. Not surprisingly, women perceive [sexual harassment] as corruption more than men do. And the younger generation perceives it as such more than the older generation.
As is the case with all forms of corruption - say, bribery - isn't the "victim" sometimes a participant? Aren't people who pay bribes as guilty as those who receive them? Aren't women who get promoted in exchange for sexual favors also playing the game?
Yes, but if you are in authority - an elected official, an army commander, whatever - it is your duty to behave responsibly. When I was in the army, the war against sexual harassment succeeded. Why? Because I didn't judge individual cases according to which of the participants initiated contact, but rather with the question of whether [an officer] met the criteria of his position, and on why [an officer] was in such a situation with a subordinate. The claims of "She wanted it," did not interest me. All I needed to know was whether his behavior was befitting of an officer.The same goes for elected officials. Where Katsav is concerned, regardless of the details of the case against him, he didn't act in a manner befitting of a president.
Isn't a person innocent until proven guilty?
Yes, but proving one's innocence - as is the right of all citizens - is a private matter. Let him sit at home and enjoy his rights as a citizen to prove his innocence - as Ramon did - or remain silent, so as not to incriminate himself. The minute he clings to the alter of his "holy" tenure, that's another story entirely. That it does damage to the stature of the presidency goes without saying. This is an example of how corruption becomes an obstacle to dealing with the important issues of the country.
Still, clean politicians are never that successful in Israel. Take yourself as an example.
Attributing my electoral failure to my clean reputation would be taking the easy way out. I think that today having a clean reputation actually helps politicians. What happened to me was that some of my supporters were afraid to waste their ballots on a party that they thought might not make it past the threshold. And it didn't.
The Gil [pensioners] Party managed to do it.
The pensioners managed to convey a combination of lovableness (who isn't on the side of Grandma and Grandpa?) and social agenda - never mind whether it's genuine or not; I mean, the Gil Party hasn't concerned itself with pensioners.
That, coupled with the media support and polls indicating that young voters wouldn't be wasting their votes, led to the party's success. Good for them, though I don't believe they'll last. Anyway, pensioners have to be a concern of all parties.
The lesson to be learned from this is: run with a small party only if you have a group of people who is certain to get you across the threshold. In my opinion, the threshold will be raised, which I don't oppose if it's not raised to an unreasonable height.
I think that given today's reality, Tafnit would have succeeded, which is why we're continuing to operate as a movement. From a political standpoint, a huge vacuum has been created. The public no longer has faith in its leadership, which [focuses on] survival and spin. We have to fill this vacuum with a serious core agenda implemented by a group of people in whom the public has faith. People with heads on their shoulders, good hearts and clean hands. People who agree on their leader. What I'm doing today is building the foundations for this [agenda and group].
You know the Israeli riddle: "How does an Israeli man commit suicide? - By jumping from his ego to his IQ."
Well, this group has to have people with high enough IQs and low enough egos to be able to work as a team - not just rally around yet another Ashkenazi general on a white horse - to further a centrist agenda like that of Tafnit.
This will complete the "big bang" of Israeli politics. Ultimately - regardless of all the ethnic, religious, and other [narrow interest groups] - Israel will have to have two parties, one which we can call [for the sake of argument] "republicans," and the other which we can call "democrats." This so-called "democratic" party will be the one in which I will find a home. It's not an issue of a political "job." Because if I were seeking a "job," I would have done so a long time ago.
Political advisers tell you not to go with an agenda, but rather with a slogan that serves as the peg on which voters can hang their hopes. They also quote [former US secretary of state Henry] Kissinger, who said, "If you're looking for a friend in Washington, get a dog."
This may be good advice for politicians. But when it works, it means an inability to bring about change - either due to lack of an agenda, or the absence of a group of people with whom to implement it.
What comes first, a leader or an agenda? Altering Disraeli's quote, one could say that when there is a real agenda, it doesn't really matter who the individual leader is.
You can't forfeit either an agenda or a leader, but it's right to ask which comes first. Today, at a time when there is neither, we need both. A team, with a leader at its head, will have an easy time enlisting people to gather around an agenda.
There is now an understanding among the Israeli public about the path [the country has to take]. It's no longer "greater Israel;" nor is it "land for peace."
There is finally an acknowledgement of a two-state solution, on condition that Israel's security needs are met. There's agreement on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
On the socioeconomic front: It's neither the socialism of yore, nor a "greedy" form of capitalism.
There's also consensus on the need for greater rule of law, and on the fact that education is as crucial a national issue as defense.
Now all we need is the leadership team who is able to reduce its ego...
Isn't that an oxymoron, or at least a bit utopian? Is there really such a thing as a group of politicians with small egos? It's like expecting journalists to write anonymously.
Yes, but I'm not suggesting removing anyone's "byline." I'm only suggesting that it not stand alone. You have to have a certain level of ego. But what's happening today is a case of egos gone wild, at the expense of national responsibility. What we need is a group of people whose national responsibility is greater than their egos. Otherwise, as we can see, their leadership fails.
In that context, let's talk about Peretz. He is an example of a leader who actually had an actual agenda that led the Labor Party to the 2006 elections. Immediately afterwards, he abandoned it for what he clearly considered to be a more prestigious portfolio.
All Peretz is doing today, in spite of the current situation, is clinging to his post as defense minister, and it's clear that he doesn't have the tools to do that job.
This is part of the larger example of how this government appoints its ministers - only for the purpose of ensuring its own survival.
Why did Prime Minister Ehud Olmert give him the defense portfolio in the first place?
It stems from a lack of genuine national responsibility. It's not that I think the chief of staff can't hail from the air force, or that the defense minister has to be a general, but they have to be people who have a much greater understanding of national security.
Let's put it in their own words. A while ago, [IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan] Halutz said that to be a shepherd, you don't have to be a sheep. That's true. But to be a shepherd, you have to understand sheep. This is a triumvirate - the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff - who are simply not in the right place. There will thus be no choice but for the chief of staff to go - not just because of the failures of the war. More importantly, because he doesn't command the authority to implement the reforms necessary for the IDF: transforming the Israel Defense Forces into an army that's also the Israel attack forces.
The defense minister, too, has to go. This will be good for us, and good for him as well. And the prime minister has to go to elections.
Do you believe that the current situation is paving the way for Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu's comeback as prime minister?
I'm not a political analyst, nor do I want to be. Of course, the Right has been somewhat strengthened. And what's happening today will result in [early] elections. In these elections, the candidate with a centrist leadership team will emerge victorious. I'm doing everything I can to make sure that such a team gets organized.