What makes an icon a leader?

Which of the household names has the best chance to become a political leader?

Tel Aviv protests  521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Tel Aviv protests 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)

What is the difference between an icon and a leader? Why is it that certain people, despite proving their ability in uniting the masses, still make for ineffective political leaders?

The social protests of the summer, followed by the return of Israel’s son Gilad Schalit, are the two main events that spearheaded a new wave of faces and voices to join the political arena. Faces of the protest Daphni Leef and Itzhik Shmuli could be joining famed father Noam Schalit, who recently seized the political mantle.

But while some of these nascent icons may have the potential to make the transition into leaders, others will fall to the wayside once their 15 minutes are up, victims of their own hubris, perhaps.

An iconic figure, Noam Schalit is perhaps the most interesting figure in the new political mix. Following his son’s release after five years in captivity, Schalit was particularly vocal about his desire to keep his family out of the spotlight, so last week’s announcement that Schalit would join the political sphere has upset more than a few people. Conversely, Schalit has scores of supporters who view him as a heroic figure, a symbol of the strength of the Israeli people.

Schalit also lent his face and his voice to the protest movement at a time when he still didn’t know whether his son would ever come home. It is impossible to know what was going through his mind at the time, and it is difficult to criticize a man who was suffering through that kind of a tragedy, but some are skeptical of his intentions.

Some critics are accusing Schalit of taking advantage of his son’s plight to garner support for his political aspirations. Given his widely documented hostility towards the government while his son was in captivity, and, indeed, towards the State of Israel itself, many are questioning Schalit’s apparent conditional patriotism. Two years ago when Schalit made the controversial move of removing the Israeli flag from the roof of his house in protest of the government’s inaction, and, as columnist Gil Troy noted, this move demonstrated to some that Schalit’s love for his country only exists as long as the country serves his own needs.

But Schalit and his supporters ascribe more honorable motives for his Knesset run. Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich maintains that the Schalit family’s struggles became everyone’s struggle and as such he transitioned into a representative for the values of the nation as whole. In a country where every family knows the pain and pride of having to serve in the military, Schalit has the potential to bring the country together in a way few others can. Schalit himself says that the move was motivated by the desire to influence Israeli society. Will his now-iconic image and aspirations give rise to a powerful political leader?

Schalit is not the only one riding this new wave of activism. Daphni Leef, viewed by many as the face of the social protest movement, has ridden her high horse from Rothschild Boulevard all the way to the Knesset. For all the criticism Leef has received for her perceived hypocrisy and megalomania, it is undeniable that she has a powerful voice. Her ability to foster a movement of the social protest’s magnitude by setting up a tent in one of Tel Aviv’s more wealthy neighborhoods is not something that can be easily scoffed.

Perhaps Leef’s ability to rally tens of thousands of Israelis to a singular cause is more indicative of the power of the message she was heralding than the actual strength of her leadership prowess. Her situation is not unlike those faced by the leaders of the Occupy Wall Street movement. None of the leaders of the Occupy movement could effectively organize their voices into one coherent message. Beginning as a show of anger towards a corrupt system and an unfair economy, there was no clear and cogent message of how effective change could be enacted.

Similarly, the social protests in Israel began as a rebuke of the cost of living in an expensive city but devolved into a broad jumble of social reform demands with no unified message for change, and, so far, Leef hasn’t done anything to suggest otherwise.

Even greater is the challenge of becoming the face of a movement. Leef, while instantly recognizable as a key voice of the social protests, could never really become the face of the social protests. Still, Leef was able to connect with the protesters in a way that others in the movement could not achieve. Maybe she can yet prove that she indeed has the staying power-and the fortitude-to become a true leader.

For all of Leef’s potential, she is outdone by one person who has the experience and the strength of voice to become a truly effective political leader, Itzhik Shmuli.

Shmuli, the head of the National Student Union, is not the biggest fan of Leef. Although they were both involved in the same social protest movement, Shmuli has a focus and a clarity that Leef simply cannot match. While Leef often projected schizophrenic messages, Shmuli has remained on point. Leef was focused on packing the streets with the disenfranchised masses and threatening more extreme protests, while Shmuli preferred to remain behind the scenes, formulating a more forward-thinking view.

“The protest draws strength from protests, but it’s pointless to use them as an end in and of themselves. True, you must be in the streets, but also in the halls of the Knesset,” said Shmuli in November.

There may be precedent for the type of leader Shmuli could become. As a voice for students, as well as social equality, ecological issues and Middle Eastern policy, politician Daniel Cohn-Bendit, otherwise known as “Danny the Red,” emerged as a true leader who has been able to affect change in French and European politics. In the 1960s, Cohn-Bendit took a strong role in massive protests and strikes that sought to create greater economic equality as well as improve the rights of workers during the May 1968 protests, one of the largest general strikes ever with over 11 million people refusing to work. He has since become a member of the European Parliament and advocates for a multitude of civil rights and center-left policies.

Unlike Leef, Shmuli has the leadership skills to affect policy similar to the change Cohn-Bendit was able to achieve in Europe. Instead of focusing solely on the street-level, Shmuli knows that the Knesset is the place where lasting change is really implemented. Shmuli also seems to know that, instead of pleading with government committees to make the necessary moves, it might be preferable to become the voice and face of change himself. Maybe having that knowledge is the difference between simply being an icon and becoming a true leader.