A couple of years ago, a woman sat down next to me on the plane home, and in a rare exception to my general principle that planes are for either sleeping or working (which means never saying more than hello to the person next to me), we got talking.
She’s Israeli, but works for a large American hi-tech company and has to go to headquarters in the States periodically.
Our conversation eventually turned to the differences between the work cultures of Israel and the United States, even in the hi-tech industry.
She said to me, “My boss on the American side, who’s not Jewish, supervises a lot of Israelis. And she says to me, ‘I don’t speak a word of Hebrew, but there are two Hebrew words I utterly despise: Yihye beseder [it’ll work out].’” What her supervisor was saying, my newfound friend explained, was that when there was a problem in the code, she wanted to see someone take responsibility for the mistake and to tell her how it would get fixed. Israelis, though, often didn’t work that way. They just told her, “Yihye beseder.” They would fix it, but they were not going to get all worked up about how the mistake happened in the first place. Chill, they were saying. Code can be fixed.
I hadn’t thought of that conversation in a long time, until the latest kerfuffle over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tentative nomination of Ran Baratz to be his new communications director.
Whether the prime minister will try to push the nomination through, despite the many objections that have been raised, and whether the Obama administration quietly communicated any signals to the Israelis about the matter during what appears to have been little more than a “let’s show people that we can get along” meeting between the prime minister and the president this week, remains unclear. Nor do I want to discuss Baratz’s assessments of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry on the American side, or of President Reuven Rivlin (whom Baratz clearly sold very short) on the Israeli side.
Baratz (whom, I should say for the sake of transparency, I’ve known for years) has every right to his opinions and every right to post them on social media as well, no matter how offensive other people may find them. He is without question brilliant, a superb scholar of ancient Greek philosophy with a command of an impressively wide array of academic disciplines, and – say students at many institutions at which he’s taught – the best lecturer they’ve ever had. That Baratz is both talented and very opinionated is beyond doubt.
The issue isn’t Baratz. The issue is the astonishing fact that the prime minister “discovered” the trail of postings after he’d already gone public with the Baratz nomination.
After the media storm exploded, the prime minister noted that he had seen those postings only belatedly and made a point of saying that Baratz’s views were “totally unacceptable and in no way reflect my positions or the policies of the government of Israel.” But that was a bit of doublespeak. What the prime minister was essentially admitting was that his office had no vetting process whatsoever.
The prime minister of the State of Israel is about to appoint someone to play a major role in shaping the county’s image in an era in which that image is badly damaged, and no one on the staff of the highest office in the land so much as thinks to do a bit of basic checking? It’s astounding. I never hire anyone without checking their social media trail, or interview potential students before I’ve checked them out. And if I can’t find them, I know they’ve blocked me in advance of the interview. No problem.
Not in the Prime Minister’s Office, though. There, it’s “Yihye beseder” at its worst. And unlike in computer code, when once you fix it the damage has been undone, in the world of international relations and diplomacy, damage done by incompetence and a cavalier attitude cannot easily be undone. Israel’s image has suffered again – ironically, by the sheer incompetence of the way in which the prime minister sought to appoint someone to fix it.
As soon as the brouhaha began, I got an email from a friend in the States, a member of a very philanthropic family, a man deeply committed to Israel. And here was what he had to say: “Danny – hope your trip was good.
“First Dermer, then Danon, now Baratz. Bibi clearly doesn’t care about bipartisan US support. Arrogance? Stupidity? Living in an echo chamber? Or he just doesn’t give a sh*t? In any case, he makes it unbelievably hard and painful to effectively support Israel on any rational basis. Emotional, yes. Forever, yes.
But the same as before, no. A shande.”
One can argue with the logic of the email, but this is a moment for reading, not arguing. This administration is convincing more and more Americans who do care about Israel that the prime minister has both lost control and simply does not care about how American Jews feel.
Note that the person who wrote me wrote not that it’s getting more difficult to support Bibi or the Likud, but that it’s getting hard to “effectively support Israel on any rational basis.” He doesn’t want to go there – he says as much.
Emotionally, he insists, his love for the Jewish state is not affected and will not be. What he’s beginning to wonder is whether the state wants to survive as much as he wants it to survive.
That’s actually a good question. This administration is treating international diplomacy like its computer code. Program away, carelessly if need be. Find the mistakes. Don’t sweat – someone will fix it. Yihye beseder – no harm done.
That’s actually wrong. Diplomacy doesn’t work like computer code, and stupid mistakes cannot be corrected just by changing (or not changing) code or nominations. What we need the world to see is an Israel that is professional, thorough, careful, mature, measured and keenly aware of how to begin to improve its image.
What we have sadly discovered is that we have yet to elect someone who even wants to try.
The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chairman of the Core Curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul. He is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.