Ramon Trial: Life after Ramon

There are two kinds of successful Israeli politicians: party creatures and generals. Rarely has someone who did not start out in student politics in his or her early twenties or have the use of a general's shoulder boards as a launching platform get far in the Knesset. Ramon was the most accomplished party creature of his generation. Not content with being a meteor in his own party, he founded another and was a primary force in the foundation of a third. Whichever party he happened to be in, he was the center of the action, attracting patrons, colleagues, acolytes and journalists alike. Eight Labor MKs formed an alliance in 1992, and since they had little in common save for their relative youth and naked ambition, they were simply known as "The Eight." They were all agreed on one detail: When the day came and they took over the government, Haim Ramon would be prime minister. It wasn't only because he had reached the Knesset before the rest, or because he had already achieved ministerial rank. It was his natural charm as a politician, his incredible range of contacts throughout all parts of the political system and the media, and, above all, his abilities as a political operator. But Ramon was impatient and The Eight's days were short. He broke with the party that had made him in April 1994 and lead an independent party, Ram, in the Histadrut labor federation elections, taking two other members of the group, Amir Peretz and Shmulik Avital, with him. Once he ended Labor's hegemony in the federation, Ramon had little interest in being a trade union leader, taking the first opportunity, immediately after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, to return to Labor and to the post of interior minister. Such a defection and then re-defection would have been unforgivable coming from any other politician. The media would have flayed him alive and he would have become a political outcast like other turncoats. But when Ramon was concerned, all was forgiven. Now that Ramon's political career is almost certainly over, it's hard to realize how he became the favorite of prime ministers and pundits. His attitude toward political allies was purely pragmatic. When his close friends Yossi Beilin and Avraham Burg ran in turn for the Labor leadership, he "went to the beach," helped out half-heartedly, as if begrudging the fact it was not himself in the running. Like his time as Histadrut secretary-general, his terms as a minister were always cut short for one reason or another. His sole legislative achievement was the incomplete National Health Insurance bill. He almost seemed to prefer backbench scheming, playing a key role in toppling two Likud governments. He might have been the visionary who first came up with ideas like unilateral withdrawal, the security barrier, and the "big bang" that would be caused to the two large parties by the foundation of a centrist bloc, but it always fell to someone else to implement these ideas. Still, despite all his betrayals and disappointments, Ramon remained the political scene's ultimate charmer. When he left Labor to join Ariel Sharon's Kadima at the end of 2005, he seemed prove that one can dance at every party. Sharon's sudden replacement by Ehud Olmert was an unexpected bonus; the two old friends, now together in the same party, formed Kadima's strongest partnership. Ramon was invaluable to Olmert and previous prime ministers for his supply of daring political advice, his discretion as a secret emissary for delicate missions, and his total ruthlessness in both building and wrecking coalitions. He was just as precious to the many dozens of journalists who lived off his well-timed leaks and enjoyed whiling away the hours around his table at the Knesset canteen. The Israeli political scene is going into withdrawal: life without Ramon. His own personal party is finally over, and in the harsh light of the morning after, politicians like him, who never had a career outside politics, are looking increasingly hollow. It's not just the tawdriness of the offense for which he was found guilty, it's the nagging suspicion that perhaps Ramon was hoodwinking the system all along. Sure, he had plenty of good ideas and he was a great guy to be around, but what did he actually accomplish save for breaking coalitions and ending old hegemonies? There are many party creatures of similar origins, in fact they make up most of the Knesset. But most of then try to make their mark with a substantial piece of legislation or a memorable term of office. Ramon departs politics without leaving even a hint of a concrete legacy. This period will be especially painful for the many journalists who are being left disillusioned after being charmed for so many years. The withdrawal pains are reminiscent of those many of them suffered eight years ago, when another media favorite and consummate operator, Aryeh Deri, was found guilty of accepting bribes. Not surprisingly, Deri and Ramon were constant partners in political crime and are still very close. Now the two of them will have plenty of time to sit together and try to understand where they went wrong.