Middle Israel: Exit the prince of Judea

Isaac Herzog learned that in today’s world blue blood lands a politician somewhere between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

Isaac Herzog (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Isaac Herzog
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The “prince,” an aspiring leader of Israel for the past quarter-century, is dead.
What began with Benny Begin’s run for Likud’s leadership in 1992 and later peaked in Ehud Olmert’s premiership, this week ended with Isaac Herzog’s removal as Labor chairman by his party’s rank and file.
In Israeli political parlance Herzog is a “prince” because he was born to what passes here for aristocracy, in his case former general, ambassador and president Chaim Herzog, who was himself the son of Isaac Herzog, Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi.
Such was also the younger Begin, who tried to enter his father’s shoes nine years after his resignation as prime minister, and such was also the 2005 bid for the Likud leadership by Uzi Landau, whose father, Haim, had been Menachem Begin’s transport minister, and before that his comrade in arms in the Irgun.
Israel’s second-generation lawmakers entered politics easily and advanced in power’s corridors quickly, but when they climbed to the rooftop they fell down the stairs.
It happened across the political spectrum.
In the Center, former finance minister Dan Meridor – whose father, Eliyahu, was also an Irgun commander and a lawmaker in Begin’s Herut – failed in his quest to become prime minister in 1999 through the short-lived Center Party. That is also what happened in 2013 to Kadima leader Tzipi Livni – daughter of Eitan Livni, who was the Irgun’s operations officer and later a Likud lawmaker.
And on the Left, Avraham Burg – son of eternal interior minister Dr. Yosef Burg – failed to seize Labor’s leadership in 1999, a pattern now followed by Herzog in tandem with Omer Bar Lev, son of Haim Bar-Lev, who was a minister in the governments of Golda Meir, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.
Not only were Herzog and Bar Lev defeated hands down – garnering together less than a quarter of 31,000 party members’ votes – the winners were the humbly born Avi Gabbay and Amir Peretz, who between them won 60% of the vote.
It is an emphatic statement about nobility in general, and also about this particular moment in history, both ours and the world’s.
CHARISMA – LEADERSHIP that does not stem from title or office, as sociologist Max Weber defined it – is not hereditary.
Yes, princes are born into power. By just meeting their parents’ guests and following what happens in their living rooms, they learn politics from infancy, and also get acquainted with the wheelers and dealers who will later pave their way to the corridors of power.
The problems arise once the princes’ chauffeured limos lead them from their posh suites to the maddening crowds. That’s when they learn they don’t have what leadership takes.
This is what Labor’s voters said when they sidelined the blue-blooded Herzog and Bar Lev for Gabbay, the seventh of Moroccan-born parents’ eight children, and Peretz, the third of six children who sailed with his proletarian parents from Casablanca to Haifa at age four.
Whether either man has what it takes to lead this country is a separate question. What matters for this discussion is that both men benefited from a new hostility to aristocracy.
People tolerate nobility when they feel times are good. But times aren’t good. Ours is a time when American voters dumped both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, and French voters threw out the window the entire political establishment.
By curious coincidence, Herzog’s defeat came the week that Olmert emerged from jail.
Son of Mordechai, a lawmaker in Menachem Begin’s Herut faction during the 1950s, Olmert is the one Israeli prince who mounted the summit that the rest of his peers never reached.
Yet Olmert, too, if not for Ariel Sharon’s stroke, would have been stranded at power’s foothills along with dozens of other princes, from Dalia Rabin (daughter of Yitzhak), Yael Dayan (daughter of Moshe and granddaughter of Shmuel, a lawmaker in the first Knesset), and Uzi Baram (son of minister Moshe) on the Left, to Tzachi Hanegbi (son of lawmaker Geula Cohen), Yair Shamir (son of Yitzhak), Oren Hazan (son of lawmaker Yehiel), and Orly Levy (daughter of foreign minister David) on the Right.
Olmert’s legal saga is exceptional, but his political odyssey encapsulates the tragedy of all of Israel’s princes: they are not equipped to inhabit the summit they crave.
So why do so many of them flock to politics? Because there is a vacuum in Israeli politics, into which the aristocrats are naturally sucked.
Our lawmakers don’t enter parliament through personal, district-based elections, as they do in North America, Britain or Australia. Instead, they are elected collectively, through lists of candidates, a system that benefits the well-connected and makes good people shun politics. That is why there are so many good leaders here in business, technology, academia and the military, and so few in politics.
Gabbay proceeded from a shoebox apartment in southern Jerusalem to an elite intelligence unit in the IDF, where he rose to the rank of major before earning an MBA at the Hebrew University, joining the Finance Ministry’s powerful Budget Department at 28, whence he moved to telecom giant Bezeq at 32, and became its CEO at 40.
Peretz, who at 65 is almost a generation above the 50-yearold Gabai, did not go to university, but still became mayor of Sderot at 31, before proceeding to national politics. Between them, their two bios echo the evolution of the breakneck mobility that is at the heart of Israel’s economic success.
Staring at the voting screens, Labor’s voters effectively said social mobility is better for them than political nobility. The rest of Middle Israel concurs.