A little over two years ago I attended a media briefing with Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer as part of his campaign to succeed Shimon Peres as Israel’s president.
It was the first time I had laid eyes on Fuad up-close since a run-in with pneumonia had put him in a coma a few years earlier, and he did not look well at all. He was noticeably thinner, not in a healthy way, still wearing clothes a few sizes too big, and appeared winded after speaking for more than a few sentences.
Why, I asked one of his aides on the sidelines, was he pursuing the presidency when he was clearly better off taking it a little easy and getting his full health back? The adviser assured me that Fuad believed he had something new and vital to contribute from the president’s post; Ben-Eliezer later expounded on this as a unique capability to help Israel build new relations with its Arab neighbors, drawing on his childhood in Iraq and personal relationships with such leaders as Hosni Mubarak.
Well, as de Gaulle once noted, the graveyards are filled with indispensable men, and it gained one more this week.
Ben-Eliezer’s son blamed his father’s death not on his well-documented health issues, but on the pressures of the police investigation and corruption charges that derailed his presidential bid. The irony, of course, is that had Fuad quietly resigned to private life in his remaining years, rather than seek one more grab at public glory, he would probably never have garnered the level of media scrutiny that led to the discovery of stashes of undocumented cash in his safe deposit boxes.
An experienced political operator, Ben- Eliezer should have known better than to take that risk. Having fallen short in his ambition to win the premiership, I guess he just couldn’t resist the temptation to crown his career with the president’s post.
His was not the only example in recent days of a former politician who didn’t have enough sense to exit the public arena when the going was good, or at least not shameful.
Moving from Israel to the US, and from tragedy to farce, this week saw, one hopes, the end of the absurd saga of Anthony Weiner. Once a promising Jewish congressman slated for bigger things, Weiner’s career was initially derailed when he was caught “sexting” – sending obscene photos of certain of his body parts – to various women. After resigning from Congress, the unfortunately named Weiner foolishly attempted a comeback in the New York mayoral election three years ago, only to be again caught out in his continuing sexting habit.
Once again sidelined, Weiner was poised for a comeback of sorts in recent months, this time on the coattails of his wife, Huma Abedin, who seems headed for the White House as one of Hillary Clinton’s top aides. Yet in a third and, one hopes, final strike he was dumped by Abedin this week after exposing himself yet again via Twitter to another woman.
It’s unbelievable that Weiner would be willing to put himself again in the public eye, even as Abedin’s spouse, without first curing himself of his humiliating social-media addiction. It seems some guys just can’t avoid the spotlight, even if it’s only a small part of them that gets exposure.
Another former politician who can’t seem to let go of drawing attention to himself is ex-prime minister Ehud Barak.
Two weeks ago Barak made a speech in which he said some recent events had gravely damaged Israel’s security as a result of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s poor judgment, without being more specific.
Since then, Barak, citing security concerns, has refused to provide details, even in the confidential confines of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
If Barak is serious, he should have found a way or a forum in which he could have shared detailed information with either the public or the appropriate official parties.
That’s what former Mossad head Meir Dagan did when, without giving away state secrets, he charged Netanyahu and Barak with being reckless in their handling of the Iranian nuclear threat.
At least Dagan was sincerely trying to influence the Iran policy debate with his revelations. Barak accomplished nothing similar with his vague insinuations about Netanyahu, other than to draw a little more media attention on himself.
And maybe that was the whole point.
On another occasion, someone close to Barak told me he truly believes he is an indispensable man, who at some future date will be called upon in one way or another to serve the nation. Maybe he will – or maybe his efforts to remain in the public eye will at some point end up tarnishing his legacy in a way that will make that all but impossible.
That’s the risk Ben-Eliezer took with his presidential bid, and he lost badly – which is a shame, because he deserves to be remembered for something more than his sad final years.
Beyond a storied military career, Fuad contributed much to our political scene.
Like most journalists, I appreciated his exuberant, good-humored, almost Falstaffian personality, as well as his tough-minded approach to peacemaking. Unlike many other Labor supporters at the time, I believed he was right to lead the party into a unity government with Ariel Sharon’s Likud in 2001, during a time of crisis in the second intifada. Nor does he get enough credit for some of his other accomplishments; for example, few appreciate his role in helping get Israel’s natural gas revolution under way, by sorting out its offshore drilling license arrangements during his stint as infrastructure minister.
Now Fuad’s career record will permanently be stained by its scandal-ridden finale, largely brought about by his inability to realize that the time had truly come to depart the public stage. Fortunately for him, his death cut short the added indignity of a trial and possible conviction. This time, at least, the timing of his exit was impeccable.
Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent for IBA English TV News. Comments welcome via Facebook/Twitter.