The year 5766 began with practically all Israeli political dynamic, diplomatic initiative and strategic design dominated by Ariel Sharon, and with a majority of Israelis prepared to follow his lead into a brave new future of rejuvenation at home and assertiveness abroad. Now, as this exceptionally tumultuous year draws to a close, not only Sharon the man, but practically all of the charisma, vision, resourcefulness, style and prot g s that came with him seem to have gone with the wind.
Whatever the aftermath of the political crises, military failures and legal scandals that currently dominate our public discourse, one thing is clear: 5766 exposed a deep leadership crisis in Israel, one that transcends the immediate circumstances of this year's unexpected war, and raises grave questions about a whole political generation's ability to pick up from where the state-builders' generation left off.
WHAT BEGAN with the impressively bloodless evacuation of Gaza and the subsequent introduction of a new political order initially instilled a sense of optimism even among those who had never backed Sharon. The fact that he could successfully carry out something as complex and explosive as the dismantlement of a whole settlement bloc made it plain that Israel had a leader whose clout was second only to David Ben-Gurion's. For better or worse, he could get things done.
Moreover, the efficiency and inspiration with which Sharon had turned the tide during this decade's terror war won Israel respect, both in the Middle East, where he was feared, and elsewhere in the international system, where terror emerged as a universal threat.
In fact, with his premiership only several weeks away from its sixth year, Sharon's leadership seemed last fall to be exceptionally durable not only by Israeli, but even by international standards. When he dismantled the Likud as early elections loomed, practically no one seriously suggested a scenario whereby Sharon would not emerge from that mayhem as Israel's undisputed, and even further empowered, leader.
But then came Hanukka, with the grandfatherly Sharon's memorable, and last, cabinet session, the one when the famously obese prime minister jokingly advised the nation not to eat too many doughnuts. By the following week, Sharon was political history, and Israel entered into a new era that soon proved rife with failure, decay and anxiety.
AS SOON as the public realized the Sharon era had ended, it was clear that it would be followed by a post-heroic era, one in which Israel would no longer be led by monumental state builders and legendary military commanders, but by a new breed of civic, career politicians.
Former union leader and provincial mayor Amir Peretz's unseating of Labor leader Shimon Peres, the Nobel Peace Laureate who had earned fame as the builder of Israel's aerospace industry and nuclear program, seemed part of a new Zeitgeist, one that would be dominated by domestic issues and a parting with the old political order's obsession with the post-'67 territorial debate. In such a setting it seemed natural for Kadima, the party Sharon created so soon before his abrupt departure, to crown as its leaders post-heroic lawyers Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni rather than Peres, Shaul Mofaz, Avi Dichter, or any other product of the military-industrial complex.
However, even before the March election, in which Sharon's successors lost a good quarter of the votes he had been predicted to win, prophecies of a brave new era-of-good-feeling in Israeli political history proved premature.
FIRST, HAMAS won parliamentary and municipal elections, thus confounding those who had predicted that Israel's departure from Gaza would de-radicalize the Palestinians. Then Olmert stunned the public by unveiling a plan for a massive, unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, a plan that was far more ambitious than anything Sharon had ever displayed, and later turned out to have lacked systematic staff work or any orderly decision-making process, whether governmental or partisan. And lastly, a settler-evacuation operation in the West Bank outpost of Amona on Feb. 1, 2006 ended up violent, raising doubts over Olmert's ability, or desire, to rule as consensually as Sharon did.
Still, once elected, Olmert managed fairly quickly to establish a coalition that seemed reasonably cohesive, and whose agenda appeared refreshingly domestic.
Surrounded by the socially oriented Shas, Labor and pensioners' Gil Party, Olmert agreed to spend more on assorted social programs, crowned by a gradual increase of the minimum wage by some 30 percent. His refusal to forfeit the Treasury was usually admired, certainly in the financial markets, where the shekel and the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange's Maof Index remained stable. The appointment of Tzipi Livni as foreign minister and vice premier looked like another manifestation of a post-military Israel's human face, and the appointment of Amir Peretz as defense minister seemed like an encouraging certificate of maturity for a political system that allowed someone humbly born and under-educated (he is the first Israeli defense minister ever to lack any academic training) to preside over the IDF.
And then came the war that in one fell swoop undid all this optimism and transformed its many protagonists into actors in a tragedy that can only culminate in their political demise.
DURING SHARON'S premiership, as Palestinian terror was beaten on the one hand and Saddam Hussein's million-man-army was dismembered on the other, a new conventional wisdom emerged here. According to that thinking, two major developments had vastly improved Israel's regional position: First, the IDF's deterrence, which had been damaged in the wake of the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the subsequent suicides' war, was largely restored with the successful counterattack on Hamas. And second, following the Iraqi army's disappearance, the threat of a classical conventional war had declined significantly.
Coupled with the new government's stated intention to leave much of the West Bank, and recalling the role it had been assigned in evacuating Gaza's settlements, the IDF ended up investing most of its thoughts on the prospective pullback and on the Iranian front. Reality, however, changed on July 12 when a largely unprepared IDF found itself back in the thick of the conventional battlefield.
One month, 4,000 rockets, 6,000 damaged homes and 130 casualties later, post-Sharon Israel had suffered a rude awakening. Olmert's and Peretz's early promises to demolish Hizbullah proved hollow. The IDF seemed to lack a coherent battle plan. The reserves were poorly trained, under-equipped and clumsily deployed, and the commanders' combat ethic, once dominated by the "follow me" tenet, seemed dented.
Worse yet, the month-long bombardment of the entire North, from Tiberias in the east to Haifa in the west and from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Afula in the south, was unprecedented even for Israel's frequently beleaguered history, and restored a sense of vulnerability that harked back to the Jewish people's historic calamities. The mental shock was so severe that all the Olmert administration's previous slogans and plans had to be swiftly reconsidered. The West Bank unilateral-retreat plan was unceremoniously shelved, the recently eulogized conventional battlefield enjoyed a renaissance, and the reprioritized budget was quickly undone. Before long, hardly three months after its dawn, the sun seemed to be setting on the much-heralded Olmert-Peretz political era.
Why? How did the Jewish state fall so quickly from last autumn's high peaks of euphoria and confidence to this fall's low ebbs of cynicism, disillusionment and despair, and where is all this likely to leave 5766 in the annals of the Jewish state?
SHARON'S PREMIERSHIP, alongside its resolve, clarity and delivery, was famously marred by corruption scandals. The arrival of large sums of money in his son Gilad's bank account, and his hiring by a politically identified contractor for a fake job in return for an astronomical salary, were forms of bribery. These, and the subsequent indictment of Sharon's other son, Omri, for overseeing his father's illicit campaign financing, are now coming to be seen as parts of a deeper decadence that has come to plague much of the political elite that thrived around Sharon.
From Olmert's dubious financial dealings through Amir Peretz's colossally failed appointment as defense minister to President Moshe Katsav's alleged sexual misconduct, 5766 is likely to go down in Israeli history not only as a moment of truth for the IDF but also, and probably more importantly, as a year of acute political perplexity.
A mere year after Kadima was introduced as the previous, fragmented political system's happy aftermath, it now seems more like its ultimate bastard, an alliance of opportunists who seduced the unsuspecting public, cunningly abusing its quest for a healing consensus. If current trends, as reflected in the polls, persist, Kadima might eventually go the way of Shinui, which supplied about half of Kadima's votes as it vanished in this year's election.
Olmert and his circle obviously refuse to acknowledge any of this. Yet as he labored furiously to avoid the judicial commission of inquiry that thousands demanded in a Tel Aviv rally addressed among others by Moshe Arens and Yossi Sarid, Olmert's former bosom buddies from Right and Left, there was a growing recognition that the IDF's non-delivery was linked to the political elite's immorality. Such a linkage runs so deep in Jewish heritage that it goes back to the Exodus, when Moses told the Israelites that to consolidate their grip on the Promised Land they would first have to pursue justice.
WHETHER OR not one accepts this moralistic analysis of the crisis with which this year ends, 5766 makes one wonder when Israel's so-called "statehood generation" - the ones educated in the Jewish state - will finally manage to produce leaders on the scale of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, or even the less charismatic, but equally moral, broad-minded and responsible, Levi Eshkol and Yitzhak Shamir.
Judging by the failed premierships of Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, whose arrogance turned off even many of their supporters, one might jump to the conclusion that the leaders produced by the Jewish state are for some reason intrinsically inferior to those who built it. In fact they even seem worse than the interim generation of Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon who were educated in this land, but before the state's establishment.
Such sweeping pessimism is unjustified.
Leadership is not limited to a specific time, location or background. It exists in every social formation. The only question is whether it is allowed to emerge and act. In 5767 a growing number of Israelis will likely question the way they are led, and seek ways to get better people to enter the public fray, and better systems to rule the governmental process.
In 5767 Israelis will realize that for a legal system to excuse a sinful leader just because he is an able governor soon brings forth leaders who are both sinful and inept. In 5767 Israelis will wonder how they agreed that out of thousands of able people throughout this country they placed the Defense Ministry, of all places, in the wrong hands. In 5767 Israelis will realize that Israel cannot allow its leaders, let alone ones with very meager experience at the helm, to introduce plans for sweeping strategic moves without processing them through a planning agency whose advice they will be compelled, by law, to seek. And in 5767 Israelis will ask whether it isn't time they stopped footing the increasingly hefty bills of governments that are chronically unstable, bloated, narrow minded and unprofessional.
In 5766 Israelis learned, the hard way, that the fine leaders they have in abundance outside the political system do not arrive within it. Israel's industry, hi-tech, commerce, academia and free professions have wonderful leaders. Had they taken part in the country's leadership, the IDF would have prepared better for last summer's war, the home-front would have been treated with more humanity and efficiency, public office would have seen fewer allegations of financial misuse and sexual abuse, and our leaders would have generally talked less pompously and delivered more promptly.
Whether or not justified, that grim thought will be on the minds of thousands of Israeli worshipers tomorrow as they beg God to "eradicate government of insolence."