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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The British poet, Lord Byron, once said that when people talk about "the good old times, [they mean] all times when old are good."
That quote was perhaps never more true than this week, when Israel wisfully said good-bye to longtime Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek; marked the anniversary of former prime minister Ariel Sharon's career-ending stroke; and saw its current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, continue to stagger through embarrassing scandals and poll results.
Israelis are obsessed with nostalgia. Paying tribute to leaders who pass gives them the opportunity to recall how great things were "back then," and complain about how bad things are now. Both are probably exaggerations, but it's not politically correct in this country to rain on the nostalgia parade.
Kollek's name was added to the pantheon of leaders no longer with us whom Israelis of different political persuasions long for, along with former prime ministers Menachem Begin, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. Sharon's son, Omri, asked his father's aides not to mark the stroke's anniversary to prevent them from delivering premature eulogies.
A recent poll found that when asked to name Israel's best prime ministers, the late Begin, Rabin and Ben-Gurion and 78-year-old Sharon were at the top of the list, while the still relatively young-by-Israeli-political-standards Ehud Barak, 64, and Binyamin Netanyahu, 57, were at, or near, the bottom.
Olmert, 61, was not included in the poll, but chances are he would not fare too well, after surveys this week found that 77 percent of the public was unsatisfied with his performance, and 49% of Kadima voters believed that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would be their party's candidate for prime minister next time, while only 9% believed it would be Olmert.
Beyond the romance with reminiscence, why is there such affection for former leaders and such contempt for and impatience with the people currently in charge? Some say it's because the current crop is genuinely incompetent, while others say that no matter what he does, any leader born too late to remember the founding of the state would never be able to earn the public's respect.
Gil Pensioners Party faction chairman Moshe Sharoni, who at 77 is the fourth oldest MK, said he believes none of Israel's current leaders can reach the level of Sharon and Kollek. He criticized the younger generation of leaders for jumping too fast through politics and giving in to populism instead of sticking to their principles.
"The young people haven't succeeded because they want to swallow everything in a day," Sharoni said. "They don't listen to the relevant advice of their elders that, as Abraham Lincoln said, 'You can't fool all the people all the time.' They need to learn to say what they really believe, and not tell people what they want to hear to be popular."
Sharoni said that white hair on a leader gives people a sense of security, while younger leaders give off an aura of unhealthy over-ambition and envy.
"We built the country and developed it and led it through all its wars, so we have more experience, patience and optimism," he said. "Young people think that if they have a degree, they are smarter than more experienced people. But you can't learn leadership in school."
Sharoni said Olmert still had a chance to stabilize and succeed, but he said the prime minister "got everything on a silver platter" from Sharon, and that had he earned his way himself, perhaps he would have been more ready.
Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines, 45, whose Labor leadership campaign is modeled after British Prime Minister Tony Blair's promise of a younger "new Labor," said he was sorry that he could not defend his generation.
"We are in the sharpest leadership crisis in Israeli history," Paz-Pines said. "Leaders like Rabin, [Shimon] Peres and Kollek are of a different caliber than today's leaders, and I am saying this as someone who has worked with both generations."
He contrasted the way that Rabin and Sharon sat forward in their chairs with their hands on their desks and listened intently, while Olmert, Netanyahu and Barak leaned back in their chairs, sending a message that they already knew everything. He said the quote that summarized the leadership crisis was Olmert's statement in pre-Rosh Hashana interviews that a prime minister "doesn't have to have an agenda," which, he said, would have made Ben-Gurion turn in his grave.
"The problem of people in this generation is that the proportion between the dedication to serve and personal ambition is the opposite of what it used to be," Paz-Pines said. "There was always ambition, but now people put it ahead of their principles."
Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, 48, disagreed with the notions that younger leaders cannot succeed in Israel, or that respect for a leader was necessarily tied to his success. He said that looking back at the way prime ministers handled the pursuit of peace and security, it cannot be said that Rabin was a success and Netanyahu a failure.
"People by human nature respect people older than they, and are jealous of people their own age who succeed," Steinitz said. "But in the entire West, it's proper that younger leaders like Blair, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush take over, because people in their 40s are at the peak of their abilities. The same should be true in Israel."
The Knesset's second youngest MK, 33-year-old Yoel Hasson, who was an aide to Sharon, predicted that with time, the public would gradually accept young leaders. He said that if the electoral system is changed and becomes more stable, new leaders will be able to blossom gradually and reach the top when they are ripe.
"The generation that created the state won't continue to lead, and the public has to accept it and start supporting the integration of young leaders in Israeli politics," Hasson said. "The generational change is inevitable. We are students of the founders, and we can lead as long as we develop at the right pace and don't jump too quickly. We need to go step by step, and if we do, we will mature properly, and we will be ready to lead the country to a bright future."
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