Supporters of Israel growing up in the United States in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s saw two young politicians who explained Israel well in American media and were said to have bright futures as Israel’s leaders.
The one on the Right, Benjamin Netanyahu, became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
The one on the Left, Haim Ramon, never fulfilled his potential.
Ramon’s new Hebrew autobiography, Against the Wind, does a good job of explaining why.
The book takes readers through history, with each of 20 chapters representing another fight he led publicly or behind the scenes on issues in which he believed strongly. Each fight was an uphill battle, and whether he won or lost, he made enemies along the way.
In an interview with the Magazine, Ramon said he had no regrets about rubbing people the wrong way and earning those enemies, because it was worth sacrificing his own political future to ensure the future of the country.
“Basically, when I was involved in revolutions, I fought hard for my ideas,” he said. “I didn’t plan for the consequences that would prevent me from becoming prime minister. I did things that people didn’t like, and they never forgave me, even long after I was proven right.”
The title of the book is the same as those of classic songs in both Hebrew and English. The Hebrew song, by Shalom Hanoch, describes feeling like the most isolated person in the world but continuing onward anyway. The English song, by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, describes a man looking back at the independence and naiveté of his youth.
Both are a good fit for Ramon. The movie Forrest Gump is also full of oldies and takes viewers through history, but while the fictional Forrest just happens to be there when history is made, Ramon is always at the center of the news being made, and none of the historical events would have taken place without him.
“The book is not just the history of the State of Israel,” Ramon said of the autobiography, which has yet to find an English publisher. “I am recommending based on the past what has to be done in the future. Every chapter not only analyzes the past but also has ideas on the present and future of the State of Israel and the society of Israel.”
There are issues like the Oslo peace process, withdrawing from the Gaza Strip and the political big bang that produced Kadima, which are open to interpretation about whether they were right or wrong in retrospect.
There are issues such as reforming the legal system and legalizing cannabis in which the battle is still going strong.
And then there are consensus issues, for which Israelis obviously owe Ramon a debt of gratitude, even if they never once agreed with him politically, like the construction of the security fence and Israel’s universal healthcare law.
“I led many struggles for what I believed in, taking terrible risks,” Ramon said. “Everything was a political struggle. I am proud of what I accomplished.”
With the fence, Ramon recalled how cities like Netanya faced one suicide bombing after another. When he said the only solution was to build a fence, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and minister Shimon Peres initially both told him the idea was “lunacy.”
He was called much worse when he tried to pass the National Health Law. The then-powerful Histadrut Labor Federation and Labor Party tried to bring him down.
“It was a miracle that the Histadrut didn’t destroy me politically,” he said. “They were corrupt and corrupted others. Legislating the National Health Law almost finished me politically.”
Ramon served in the Knesset from 1983 to 2009, after rising as one of “the gang of eight” young politicians inside Labor. His first portfolio was as health minister when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister in 1992. Rabin offered Ramon the finance portfolio, but Ramon said he preferred health because, since taking care of his father who died young, he believed improving the health system was Israel’s most urgent need.
The way Ramon explains it, since Israel’s establishment, there was no obligation to provide people with healthcare. The sick funds were voluntary, and they didn’t have to accept everyone. To be a member of the largest health fund, Clalit, people had to join the Histadrut, which took 40% of the money. The Histadrut opposed the legislation of a national health fund, even though it was basic socialism, because it meant the union would lose control. They spent huge sums to fight Ramon, even hiring a private investigator to follow him day and night.
The Histadrut organized a Labor convention with 3,000 people on January 30, 1994. They shouted at Ramon, cursed at him and tried to prevent him from talking. That was where Ramon delivered his famous “beached whale speech,” in which he unsuccessfully begged activists to stop themselves from committing political suicide and support his universal healthcare proposal.
“Like a whale that lost its sense of direction, you are storming the beach again and again and trying to commit suicide,” he told the activists. “And I, with my limited strength, am trying to push you back to the water to save your life. But you don’t want, you don’t want. You insist on committing suicide.”
After the party decided against his National Health Bill, Ramon resigned from his post as health minister and ran against Labor in the Histadrut.
“It was like running against the Communist Party in Russia, and yet I won,” he recalled. “Only because I fought the Bolshevik left wing in the Histadrut, I was able to pass the National Health Bill, which entitled people to basic health services and enabled them to choose which health fund they wanted. This made Israel have one of the most efficient health systems in the world.”
With all due respect to Netanyahu, it is in part because of that system that Pfizer signed the agreements with Israel that have resulted in more than two million Israelis getting vaccinated so far. While Canada celebrates the founder of its universal healthcare, Tommy Douglas, Ramon is not seen as a hero for what he did.
“Netanyahu deserves credit, but it’s not only him,” Ramon said. “It’s because of the system that we are by far No. 1 in the world in vaccinations. This is a great accomplishment. The system is only so good because I succeeded in overcoming the resistance of the Bolshevik Left.”
Ramon recalled that the Israeli health system went bankrupt and had chronic shortages of drugs in storage. But, he said, now the Histadrut takes credit for the system in an effort to rewrite history.
“They were the main obstacle to any reform. It’s a miracle that I succeeded in reforming the system in Israel, which was as bad as the United States.”
WHILE RAMON has been on the Left on diplomatic issues throughout his entire career, he is on the other side when it comes to his plan for redrafting the legal system of Israel. His support for what he terms the basic civil rights of the investigated and the indicted has led to criticism that he is out to help Netanyahu with his legal cases.
“The madness of the past two to three years is that everything has become about being in favor of Netanyahu or not,” he said. “If I fight for Netanyahu as a citizen to have a fair investigation and trial, it does not mean I am in favor of Bibi. The legal system is not about Netanyahu. Since 1996, all Israeli prime ministers in Israel have been under investigation. Does that make any sense?”
Ramon warned that the police and state attorney have no limits and can do anything to bring an indictment. He said he believes that for Netanyahu, the police and prosecution have twisted their probe in a corrupt manner. He called Netanyahu’s indictment for receiving positive news coverage unprecedented and unbelievable.
“I don’t know if Netanyahu is innocent or guilty, but they would do anything to get him indicted and convicted,” he said.
Ramon has faced his own legal problems, but they came only after he announced his plans to reform the system, and he believes this is no coincidence. In January 2007, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court judges found him guilty of committing an indecent act for kissing a 20-year-old female soldier without her consent.
He served 100 hours of community service at a therapeutic riding center assisting children with disabilities. The court did not find moral turpitude in his actions and he returned to the cabinet, but not as minister of justice. Ramon believes the probe was intended to stop his reforms, and it worked.
“In 1993, Supreme Court president Aharon Barak started a revolution that changed the character of Israel, making the Supreme Court above sovereign,” Ramon explained. “This doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. I don’t want to kill the legal system. Trust in the legal system is the lowest ever. I just want to go back to the good old days. Saying I have a vendetta is just another lie.”
When Ehud Olmert became prime minister, he was willing to make Ramon finance minister, but Ramon insisted on the justice portfolio.
“I told him I would reform the system, and every day I made changes,” he said. “Until they found an incident that they could use to stop me from remaining justice minister. They achieved their goal with me, like they did with others. In the book, I wrote 22 changes to normalize the legal system in Israel, where the people who have responsibility have no authority, and the people who have authority have no responsibility.”
ON OTHER issues, Ramon remains on the Left. He persuaded Ariel Sharon and his advisers to form Kadima to facilitate West Bank withdrawals that he considered essential for Israel’s future. He vigorously opposes annexation.
“I believe we need to separate from the Palestinians because it is an existential threat for Israel if we don’t,” he said. “We cannot annex two-and-a-half million people, because we will not remain a Jewish-democratic state. The Palestinians will say they are in favor of one-person, one-vote. But no one on the Left is dealing with this, and they are ignoring the elephant in the room. The Left and Center stopped talking about the future of Israel.”
Because there is no party that agrees with Ramon on both diplomatic and legal issues, he is prepared to cast an empty ballot in the March 23 election. Meanwhile, he tried unsuccessfully to postpone the election by negotiating with Likud on Blue and White’s behalf.
“When Gideon Sa’ar resigned from Likud and formed his party, Netanyahu realized he might lose,” Ramon recounted. “He changed his view from refusing to accept his agreement and refusing to carry out the rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office with [Blue and White leader] Benny Gantz. We negotiated on the basis of Likud being willing to do the rotation on time. But then they told me they wanted to change the rotation from equal to more time for Netanyahu. I told them not even half an hour. It showed they weren’t serious about reaching an agreement.”
Ramon still believes if the deadline for passing the state budget could have been extended, an agreement could have been reached that would have resulted in Gantz becoming prime minister in November 2021. But MKs in Blue and White rebelled, and Gantz did not send other MKs from his party to balance out their votes.
Asked why he even got involved, Ramon said, “I didn’t want the next Knesset to have 75 MKs on the extreme Right. If Bibi would have fulfilled his word, Gantz could have been prime minister, which would have been better than Sa’ar or Naftali Bennett.”
Ramon believes both Gantz and Netanyahu were mistaken in not doing enough to prevent the current election.
“Bibi made a terrible mistake,” he said. “Because of this, he will lose the election.”
As for himself, Ramon is satisfied with his accomplishments. He says Israel has had only four or five prime ministers who could write a book with as many achievements as he has written.
“I didn’t think of becoming prime minister, because it was more important to me to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish,” he said. “Sometimes I have won, and sometimes I have lost, but even when I won I was wounded, and no matter what, I am always fighting.”