When did the rot set in?

There is something distasteful about our former leaders using their status as ex-premiers to cash in.

Barak smiles 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Barak smiles 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It's hard to feel sorry for Ehud Barak, forced out of his 370 square meter apartment on the 31st floor of the Akirov Towers in Tel Aviv. Barak has apparently realized that a more modest address, less identified with the very pinnacle of the Israeli business elite, would perhaps be more suitable for someone who aspires to the premiership as head of the Labor Party. But showing some of the business acumen that helped him make his fortune so quickly after leaving public office, Barak is not prepared to move out cheaply - according to some newspaper reports he has set a price of around $11 million for the apartment which he bought for $2.5 million at the end of 2006. In comparison, Yitzhak Rabin's former duplex, also in a ritzy Tel Aviv neighborhood, was recently sold but reportedly for a much more modest price - NIS 4 million, a 10th of what Barak is asking for. And a more telling comparison can be found in the excellent Menachem Begin Heritage Center museum in Jerusalem. There you can find a reconstruction of Begin's apartment at 1 Rehov Rosenbaum in Tel Aviv, his private residence until he became prime minister in 1977. The simply furnished living room is exactly like the living rooms of other lower middle-class Israelis of that period, who made do with very little. There is no room there for the grand piano so beloved of Barak. Begin, despite being the most grandiose and theatrical of politicians, lived a spartan way of life and handed this down to his children. His son Benny, a Jerusalemite, was famous when a Knesset member for taking the bus to the Knesset rather than using his MK's car. Begin's successor, Yitzhak Shamir, as befits another former member of the Jewish underground, also lived modestly. His son Yair, the successful hi-tech entrepreneur, said that his father was disappointed in him when he decided to leave the air force, where he had been a successful career officer, in favor of the business world. Shamir senior was troubled by the thought, Yair said, that his son was giving up a job in which the security of the state was paramount in return for one where money became the prime object. SO WHERE did the rot set in? On some levels, and as with so many other things, with Binyamin Netanyahu. He was the first prime minister to whom money was seen to really matter and who enjoyed the better things of life, preferably at somebody else's expense. His did not hide his fondness for Cuban cigars, expensive travel and sharp clothes, nor his unshakeable belief that he was entitled to these luxuries. Now living in a villa in Caesarea, with Arkadi Gaydamak as a neighbor, Netanyahu set the tone for others to follow, with Ehud Olmert taking it to unfortunate extremes. It would, of course, be naive to think that our politics was a haven of puritanical idealism before Netanyahu took the stage. Begin came to power due, in no small part, to the stench of corruption surrounding the then ruling Labor Party, but Netanyahu injected a new atmosphere of "money talks." Netanyahu wanted to Americanize Israeli politics and cultivated a coterie of rich foreign businessmen to provide him with the means to take power. His highly successful "Netanyahu is good for the Jews" 1996 campaign slogan, for example, with its racist undertones as to what this means for Arab citizens, was funded by the Australian Lubavitcher businessman Joseph Gutnik, then at the peak of his wealth. Netanyahu's dreams of turning the Prime Minister's Office into an Israeli White House faltered, however, on the rocks of the local political reality, and he left his successor with a Likud central committee that when challenged by Limor Livnat as to whether the Likud was in power solely to provide its members with jobs, brazenly answered her with a resounding yes. Netanyahu's rise to power also reflected a wider change in society, in which the modern-day hero was no longer the daring IDF commando or pioneering scientist, but rather the rich businessman who knew how to triple his fortune, not by producing anything of intrinsic worth, but by playing the stock market. Suddenly, the value of a person lay not in what he or she had done, but in how much he was worth. Once knocked off their perch as prime minister, the first thing Netanyahu and Barak sought to do was make money, and lots of it, before returning to politics. While there is nothing wrong with wealth, and not having the funds to live in the Akirov Towers is also no guarantee of wisdom, as Sderot resident Amir Peretz's tenure as defense minister proved, there is something distasteful about our former leaders using their status as ex-premiers to cash in. Public service in and of itself, and not just as a springboard to the lecture circuit and multinational boardrooms, should also be seen as a career in which one can take pride. Ehud Barak has a fine record of public service behind him, as Israel's most decorated soldier and as the first national leader to seek a final-status peace agreement with the Palestinians, and it is a shame that his reputation has been tarnished by a weakness for the high life. A leader of a social-democratic party simply cannot afford to live with the economic elite of the elite if he wishes to be taken seriously. Barak's decision to move house shows he is serious about challenging once more for the premiership, but come Election Day, it is going to take more than just a change of address to alter his political fortunes. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.