Critical Currents: The comeback boys

A choice among Ehud Olmert, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak is really no choice at all.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The sultry days of August, usually politically arid, have been unusually fertile this year. In the aftermath of the Likud primary, the lineup for the next general elections seems to be set. The unfolding three-way contest among Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and the somewhat revived Ehud Olmert is as distressing as it is predictable. Appearances aside, these three men are in fact very similar. The choice among them is really no choice at all. Each of these candidates comes with a solid history of failure; each is entering the fray with nothing innovative to offer; each no longer inspires public confidence. Together, they represent a throwback to the trials of yesteryear. They promise only immobility and retrenchment precisely when fluidity prevails and progress is possible. Olmert, Barak and Netanyahu share abysmal political records. The current prime minister irresponsibly led the country into a war which he clumsily lost. Barak, with equal ineptitude, squandered prospects for peace. And the recently resuscitated hopeful, Netanyahu, oversaw the systematic unraveling of the country's cohesion during his tenure. These three men are vying with each other for the dubious title of the least successful prime minister in Israel's history. Given their rather dismal political background, it is hardly surprising that these contenders are now preoccupied with the task of self-rehabilitation. With the help of a bevy of costly spin-doctors, they are engaged in new forms of historical revisionism in the hope they will be able to dim, if not totally erase, collective memories. This process also entails sophisticated attempts to convince the electorate that each has undergone a personal metamorphosis and is consequently a changed man, eminently worthy of regaining high office. Netanyahu underscores his maturation and cumulative experience as finance minister and leader of the opposition. Barak is trying to impress on anyone who will listen that his reputation as an all-knowing loner is no longer valid, having been replaced by a newly acquired sensitivity to the opinions of others. And Olmert, with enviable skill, is building himself up as the only leader capable of rectifying the near devastating mistakes he himself made. An integral part of this effort to reshape public perceptions is programmatic. All three contestants are involved in a curious game of ideological musical chairs. Olmert is presenting himself as the champion of peace and accommodation externally and the guardian of the downtrodden internally. Barak is purposefully bypassing him on the right, spreading doubts about the prospects for a diplomatic accord with the Palestinians, while coolly observing war exercises in the North. Netanyahu is busily engaged in bashing the far right, which he so assiduously courted for years. At the same time, he is feverishly designing plans for the improvement of the very educational and welfare systems he so mercilessly enfeebled in the past. Such policy fluctuations are part of a complex juggling act aimed at wooing the elusive mainstream. All told, these minor conceptual readjustments around a hypothetical political center lack both substance and creativity, let alone vision. Those changes that cannot be achieved through reformed political platforms are being promoted through conscious shifts in comportment. The aloof, well-heeled, arrogant, flashy and opportunistic label associated in varying measures with each of the past incumbents is purposely being downplayed. In its stead, a more subdued and seemingly humble demeanor is being molded. The heretofore verbose Barak, Netanyahu and Olmert have turned unusually taciturn in recent months. Silence, coupled with well-placed allusions to their mastery of the political craft, has become a powerful political weapon. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of these image-transforming maneuvers. Their credibility is not, however, negligible. Netanyahu just won the Likud race handily; Barak prevailed in the Labor primary against all odds; and Olmert is enjoying an unexpected lull in his unpopularity. Whether these will withstand the ultimate test at the polls is another question. The electorate, in fact, is at a loss as to how to deal with the choice among these veritable political clones. Discussions revolve around how to determine the lesser evil. Matters of personal taste play a role. So, too, do long-standing party preferences. And the effect of the time factor on the collective political memory is becoming increasingly significant. Here Netanyahu has the advantage: His term as prime minister began more than a decade ago. Barak is trying hard to obscure the details of his more recent blunders. Olmert, in a series of well-publicized diversions, is still hoping to blur the still fresh recollections of the last year. Most Israelis, however, find such debates distasteful. For them, the list of the frontrunners is just too much of the same. Other pretenders are deemed equally off-putting. Many may yet prefer to absent themselves from the polls, thus adding to the alienation and mistrust underlying the troubling pattern of diminishing political participation. The need to choose among three tested and disproved leaders is hardly inevitable. It is not too late to make a concerted effort to challenge the stultifying prospect of yet another round of indecision, paralysis and incompetence. Highly qualified and responsible people with fresh ideas and the courage to pursue them abound in the country. The quest for such a slate of experienced and untainted candidates must commence without delay. Its success is the key not only to the restoration of public confidence in the political process, but also to Israel's viability in the years ahead.