Looking for a Leader

How serious is a lack of coherent leadership for Israel’s future?

netanyahu begin311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
netanyahu begin311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
EVER SINCE EHUD OLMERT came under a cloud after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Israel has been in the throes of a profound leadership crisis. “Our leadership is hollow,” author David Grossman, who lost a son in the war, famously declared at the time.
Now, 17 months into the second Netanyahu government, the leadership malaise, if anything, seems worse. In the Israeli media, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely perceived as a man who hates making decisions, is reluctant to assert authority and has no realistic grand plan for peace with the Palestinians.
Some critics see his government as primarily reactive to random events, rather than shaping the nation’s destiny at a crucial juncture in its history. Others excoriate it for simply marking time with the prime goal of staying in power, rather than doing great things.
Netanyahu’s close leadership partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak fares even worse.
The Labor leader is seen as arrogant, incapable of admitting mistakes or maintaining good working relations, and doing little to press Netanyahu towards the grand accommodation with the Arab world he thinks Israel should be seeking. Opposition Kadima leader Tzipi Livni wins plaudits for integrity and as a shrewd advisor, but is seen as far less successful in the hot seat as party No. 1, twice having failed to form a government when she had the chance, and signally failing to make an impact as opposition leader.
The shortcomings of the current leadership were underlined during recent testimony before the Turkel Commission investigating the interception by Israeli naval commandos on the high seas, in late May, of a Turkish vessel ostensibly carrying aid to Gaza, an operation that left nine “peace activists” dead and was widely condemned by the international community.
Hazy on detail, Netanyahu told the panel that he had delegated everything to Barak, and then had to backpedal to explain that he had only meant to say that things were taken care of in his absence abroad, and that he was not trying to pass the buck. Barak was less chivalrous, putting the blame for the failed operation squarely on the IDF. The government, he told the panel, decides on the “what,” that is intercepting the vessel; the army on the “how,” that is the detailed operational planning of the commando action – as if there is no ongoing interplay between the two, and as if, ultimately, it is not the defense minister’s responsibility to ask searching questions about the planning of such an internationally sensitive operation and to consider the wider ramifications if something were to go wrong.
The so-called “Galant document,” a forgery purporting to show a PR company’s dirty tricks advice to Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant in his bid to become the next chief of staff, highlighted more problems at the top. It reaffirmed that Barak and outgoing Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi are barely on speaking terms, that Ashkenazi and Galant are bitter foes, and that Netanyahu as prime minister had failed to assert leadership and order a brisk return to proper professional working relationships.
Ashkenazi, too, blotted his otherwise clean and impressive copy book by sitting on the document for months, without saying a word about it to either Barak, his immediate civilian superior, or to Galant, whose case the document was ostensibly trying to promote. After a frantic police investigation cleared the top army brass and the defense minister of any involvement in the “Galant document,” Barak hastened, on August 22, to name Galant as the next chief of staff.
The Turkel Commission testimony and the “Galant document” only exacerbated already existing perceptions. In a representative article a few weeks earlier, journalist Eitan Haber, a former top aide to the late Yitzhak Rabin, argued that the leadership crisis was more dangerous than the Iranian bomb. To meet the tidal wave of Islam, Haber argued that Israel needed leaders of the caliber of Churchill, Roosevelt, De Gaulle or Ben-Gurion, but that instead “the leadership reservoir” was empty.
“Does anyone see on the horizon Ben- Gurion-like leaders, who would replace this duo [Netanyahu and Barak]? Here’s the shelf of future leaders, just reach out your hand – who would you bring down from there to serve as our savior? Who?” Haber challenged dismissively, before concluding that of all the problems Israel faces, “the leadership crisis is the gravest of all.”
SO JUST HOW BAD IS THE current leadership? To what extent is it a question of the individuals concerned and how much is the system to blame? To what extent is the Israeli case part of a wider global malaise, and what, if anything, can be done to improve the quality of leadership in an increasingly complex and fragmented modern world?
And how serious is a lack of coherent leadership for Israel’s future? Historically, Israel has been blessed with strong or wise leaders, sometimes both, in David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon.
It is the younger, third generation of leaders, Netanyahu, Barak and Olmert who, so far, have failed to make the grade.
To be fair not all the blame can be laid at their door. The sense of common ideological purpose within which most of their predecessors operated has long since evaporated, and the powerful political parties that supported them have all but collapsed. The once dominant Labor party, which won as many as 44 seats in the 120 member Knesset in 1992, now has just 13; and its main historic rival, Likud, split in two in 2005, when Ariel Sharon broke away to form Kadima. All this has been compounded by an electoral system based on pure proportional representation leading to ever more fragmented Knessets and increasingly unwieldy coalition governments. Even with the best intentions, today’s leaders often find themselves hamstrung by the system.
Where the current generation has failed all on its own is in setting the same steely standards of Spartan commitment to the national cause as, say, a Ben-Gurion or a Begin.
Netanyahu, Barak and Olmert all found time outside politics to amass personal fortunes. The end result has been a generation of leaders who fail to inspire by example, find it difficult to govern, and seem to be unable to elucidate a clear vision of where they want to lead the country.
But how should leaders past and present be compared and judged? Yehuda Avner, author of the recently published “The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership,” suggests that one of the main criteria should be the degree of their readiness to take political risks in the national interest. Avner, a former diplomat and advisor to four prime ministers, Eshkol, Meir, Rabin and Begin, recalls being deeply impressed by an inscription on a gravestone he found in Australia, when he was ambassador there in the early 1990s.
“Leadership is wisdom and courage and a great carelessness of self,” it read. In other words, leadership is the wisdom and courage to do what the leader thinks is right, irrespective of how it might affect his career.
“In the past we experienced Israeli leaders making decisions with a great carelessness of self. I am not sure we are experiencing that today,” Avner tells The Report. As examples, he gives Ben-Gurion’s declaration of statehood in 1948, when close colleagues were advising him against it; Eshkol’s holding back his generals on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War until he was sure he had the Americans on his side, even though the waiting almost cost him his job; Rabin going through with the Entebbe hostage rescue operation in 1976, even though failure would almost certainly have spelt the end of his political career; and Begin, similarly showing “carelessness of self,” in deciding to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981.
“This first crop of leaders was hewn from flinty rock. They had a very strong ideological backbone in a society with a very strong ideological backbone. They had an ethos of first person plural, not first person singular. And that is fundamentally different from what we have today,” he declares.
Still, Avner warns against rushing to judgment on Netanyahu. “That will depend on how the prime minister comes though the ultimate tests he still has to face on the Palestinian issue and Iran,” he concludes.
THERE ARE OTHER REASONS FOR the current leadership crisis: exposure of leaders to an unrelentingly critical mass media, unrealistic public expectations and a dearth of good young people going into politics. To these, Yoram Peri, the Abraham S. and Jack Kay professor in Israel Studies at Maryland University, adds a number of problematic elements in Israeli political culture: failure to adhere to strictly professional criteria when making decisions, failure to stick to the rules of the political game, and an innate lack of deference towards leaders.
But far more devastating in Peri’s view is the utter disintegration of the party system, through which its venerated past leaders operated.
Although they too often nurtured strong personal feuds, like Eshkol and Meir, Peri, a former editor of the now defunct Labor party newspaper, Davar, says they knew they had to maintain a shared party framework, if they were to achieve any of their common national goals. The problem today, he says, is not so much the loss of ideology as the loss of the party framework.
“Today there is no genuine internal party cooperation, not even within the factions in the Knesset. You have tiny constellations of two or three Knesset members, who first go one way, then the other, depending on how they see their personal career interests. And with such a fragmented support base, there is no way a leader can construct long-term policies,” he avers.
For Peri, though, the most debilitating aspect of the Israeli polity is the decades-long failure to resolve the consequences of the 1967 Six Day War. He compares the situation in Israel today to that of the 4th Republic in France. Obsessed with the war in Algeria and the French occupation there, government after government fell, with very little achieved in all other spheres. It was only after de Gaulle changed the system of government and closed the Algerian occupation chapter that France emerged from its long stupor, entering a new partnership with Germany in the unification of Europe.
In Israel too, he says, the leadership malaise stems largely from the fact that successive Israeli governments have been totally obsessed with the Palestinian question and resoundingly failed to deliver the goods on what they themselves defined as the most important issue of the day. “Like de Gaulle, Israel needs to close the chapter on the 1967 occupation and to introduce a new system that allows for more effective government,” he says.
Peri believes that if Netanyahu were to make a de Gaulle-like decision, he would get overwhelming national support. “The public would follow him, and he would be able to get it passed in the Knesset with ease.
At one point I thought this was what he would do. But now I am not at all sure. He seems to be playing for time,” he opines.
In Peri’s view, the consequences for Israel of continued stalemate could be dire. “I don’t think the country will implode or be destroyed.
But there is a danger that Israel could lose what political scientists call its “stateness,” the essential minimum of social cohesion around the leadership and popular acceptance of the authority of the state and its institutions,” he warns.
ISRAEL, HOWEVER, IS CLEARLY not the only Western-style democracy facing a leadership crisis. Indeed, Peri and other Israeli political scientists insist that the difficulty in projecting convincing leadership is a global phenomenon. Yehezkel Dror, of the Hebrew University, maintains that part of the problem is that today’s leaders simply cannot keep up with the fast pace of change in the modern world. His solution: to teach aspiring leaders what he calls “foundational leadership.”
According to Dror, the foundational leader will be capable of making strategic decisions, putting long-term planning in train and setting strategic directions, all designed to lay firm foundations for the nation’s future. He will be adept at evoking what Dror calls a “benevolent Machiavellianism,” not aimed at personal gratification or power aggregation, but at mustering public support for what needs to be done in the national interest, even when it entails shortterm sacrifices.
In a professional manual he is currently writing on the new ruler, Dror adds that he or she will need to be more knowledgeable than his or her predecessors, have more flexible patterns of thought and be capable of dealing with a host of very different issues. He or she will also need to have a clear set of core principles, a deep understanding of political psychology and the capacity to fulfill educational and inspirational roles.
In order to help create foundational leaders, Dror says he would consider setting up a national policy college, for regular students and for incumbent leaders, who would be able to take relatively short courses outside the media spotlight. In addition, he urges Israeli universities and colleges to start offering courses on political leadership.
Besides improving the quality of its leaders, Dror says it is imperative for Israel to change its system of government. He would go for a quasi-presidential system, the main aim being to give those elected the power to govern.
“Israel is a heroic achievement. But it does not have self-propagating momentum. And the very nature of Israel as a Jewish state with unresolved security issues requires foundational leadership,” Dror tells The Report.
OVER THE PAST SEVERAL years, changing the electoral system has been high on the agenda. The political forces for change, however, have been unable to unite around an agreed plan of action.
Recommendations by a panel of experts set up by then-president Moshe Katzav have been gathering dust ever since they were presented to him, in January 2007.
The panel, under former Hebrew University president, Menachem Magidor, proposed, inter alia, that the leader of the largest party after an election automatically becomes prime minister.
The thinking was that that would encourage people to vote for the larger parties with genuine prime ministerial candidates. The panel also recommended a system of mixed proportional representation and constituency elections, whereby 60 Knesset members would be elected in 17 constituencies nationwide and 60 by proportional representation on party lists, rather than all 120 by proportional representation, as is the case at present.
Last November, Kadima, Yisrael Beiteinu and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman launched an initiative for electoral reform, which quickly fizzled out when the parties failed to agree on a joint proposal.
Yisrael Beiteinu leaned more towards a USstyle presidential system, Kadima towards the reformed parliamentary system as proposed by the Magidor panel.
Yohanan Plesner, one of the Kadima Knesset members involved in the initiative for electoral change, warns that time is rapidly running out, because the small single- sector parties are getting bigger all the time, and will soon be able to veto any proposal for change by the larger parties. He says the only way change can be made is if Netanyahu forms a new coalition with Likud, Kadima and Labor, with electoral reform as one of its guiding principles. Such a coalition would also be able to handle genuine peacemaking with the Palestinians.
But, he says, the prime minister is showing no sign of moving in that direction.
Instead, Plesner charges, Netanyahu seems to prefer his party alliance with Shas, for which he is ready to sacrifice the national interest. “Netanyahu is acting like a politician bent on survival, rather than a leader out to achieve sweeping national goals. He seems to be saying that acting in the national interest on all these key issues involves political risks, which he is not prepared to take,” Plesner tells The Report.
Moreover, Plesner insists, Israel cannot afford to allow the leadership malaise to go on much longer. “If within five to ten years we don’t find a way to make decisive choices on the key problems facing the Zionist enterprise, the window of opportunity for making changes will close. I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but it’s very, very serious,” he concludes.