Middle Israel: A tale of two pities

One year after the most scandalous war in our history, anomaly has become our middle name.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Asked once whether in considering various anomalies, he might contemplate alternatives, Margaret Thatcher's deputy William Whitelaw is said to have retorted: "We are examining alternative anomalies." So are we. One year after the most scandalous war in our history, anomaly has become our middle name. We have a foreign minister waltzing with a boss whose resignation she publicly demanded; we have a strategic affairs minister feeding a leadership his voters consider a strategic threat; we have a Labor Party that sucks Ehud Olmert's milk in the mornings and his blood in the evenings; and we have the guy who, upon hearing of our soldiers' being killed and captured, found time to invade a woman half his age now getting crowned vice premier. It's only natural, then, that one year later Kiryat Shmona's bomb shelters are being renovated not by the government that last year exposed the North, but by the dedicated volunteers of the Livnot U'Lhibanot nonprofit organization. Sadly, last year's social autism and administrative ineptitude remain as glaring as the Katyusha craters that still scar Mt. Meron, while a Russian oligarch's self-serving reach for the South's neglected wounds is followed by American Jews' selfless arrival at the North's. ONE YEAR ON, the culture of political charlatanism that was behind our military underperformance is alive and well. Most of us did not need the Winograd Committee to realize that Dan Halutz and Amir Peretz should never have arrived where they did. Many, however, did need the reminder that Halutz, who was pretty much clueless about ground warfare, was imposed on the IDF as part of Ariel Sharon's systematic toying with people, offices and entire parties as with Lego bricks, in complete disregard of the national interest. When Sharon appointed an international lightweight like Silvan Shalom foreign minister, when he made Shaul Mofaz defense minister the day after he left the army, when he fired the National Union's ministers even before they voted against his plans, when he ignored his own referendum's verdict, or maneuvered his loyal coalition partner Shinui out of power to make way for Labor, people looked the other way. Back then, the conventional wisdom was that he might be doing questionable things, but Sharon was also the man who turned the tide in the war on terror, and that as the man who built the settlements, he could also undo some of them. Middle Israelis now lament that attitude, but still think it had its rationale in its time. Now, however, we have business with a leadership that has built not a fraction of what Sharon built, and whose battlefield performance would have made him fume. What this leadership did learn from Sharon was to trample governance. "Ah," one could almost hear Olmert exclaiming with relish upon entering his office the morning after Avraham Hirchson's resignation, "it's reshuffle time - my specialty!" And he was right. Who better than he can weigh, compare and balance this man's clout with that one's ego, and this position's sway with that half position's prestige until finally emerging - like a pharmacist meticulously spooning a complex solution's delicate components - with the brew that will clearly never cure its patient's terminal illness, but can be counted on to prolong his painful life? "I," Olmert once boasted in my ears, "am the one maintaining Sharon's coalition," a role that in our political system is indeed indispensable, and for which Olmert is clearly suited. The problem is that too much trading in agencies, budgets and titles can invest one so totally in moving officials around that no office will ever be properly fulfilled. Think about it: What was touched off by the need to replace one minister ended up involving six ministerial appointments and reappointments and an additional Knesset committee's chairmanship. This way seven people's loyalty to Olmert was nursed, at the expense of the system's stability and delivery. This is how we ended up with the interior, absorption and housing ministers leaving their jobs for no professional reason a mere 16 months after assuming them, while two ministers-without-portfolio were added to the cabinet with even less professional justification. Of course, the very need for a reshuffle would have been avoided had someone from outside this cabinet replaced its investigated finance minister - himself a monument of maximum loyalty and minimum merit - but in Olmert's universe, as in Sharon's before him, appointments are first and foremost to serve the prime minister and only then the public interest. ALL THIS disparagement of public hygiene did not begin with Olmert, or even with Sharon, but with Ehud Barak's serially bizarre appointments, not to mention his abrupt abolition of a basic law that capped the number of cabinet ministers at 18, all so he could hand out even more booty and ignore even more people while running the country all alone, and into the ground. Yet one move topped all three's scorn of good governance, both in its audacity and in its damage: it was Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya'alon's brutal removal to make way for Dan Halutz at the IDF's helm. In the Sharon-Olmert ecosystem, it was a natural move. If you could add and delete coalition partners at will according to passing circumstances, you could do the same with a no-nonsense soldier who merely fulfilled his duty by questioning, in the appropriate closed forums, the military impact of their plans. Two years on, reality vindicates Ya'alon's warnings about the aftermath of disengagement and condemns those who deprived us of his leadership during last summer's war. Yet these dwarf compared with Ya'alon's statement this week that the war leadership's major failure was not strategic, but moral. Ya'alon is so right. Even before one questions his successor's balancing of ground and air warfare, one must take stock - so to speak - of his finding time to handle his personal finances while the border was catching fire. And Ya'alon - a soft-spoken farmer whose humility, idealism and morality now seem so anomalous in our public arena - is right in diagnosing Halutz's conduct as part of a culture. The good news is that outside of politics, excellence is actually common here. In industry, academia, commerce, science and the arts, Israel is blessed with universally admired talent. Yes, one is at a loss to decide which of our public life's two hallmarks is a greater pity: that we are led by those who lead us, or that they are allowed to sideline with impunity people like Ya'alon, or philosopher, scientist and general Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael (Kadima backbencher) or former Ben-Gurion University president Avishay Braverman (Labor backbencher), and at the very same time have Ruhama Avraham, until recently a secretary, join the cabinet. The good news is that these pities can only last that long, for unlike old Whitelaw's quip, at some point anomalies can no longer be traded and must be summarily eradicated. Israel is at such a point.