Middle Israel: The last modest Israeli

Levy's life of bravery, delivery and modesty needs recognition.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Very few people outside Israel ever heard of Moshe Levy, the paratrooper who passed away last week at 71, and whose four years as IDF chief of General Staff in the mid-1980s were among the most peaceful in the country's history. Tall as a basketball star - and therefore nicknamed Moshe-and-a-half - Levy's deep voice and clear speech contrasted the sadness that always seemed to fill his dark eyes and the general goodness he radiated, all of which are, of course, in themselves reasons to recall him fondly, as are his accomplishments as a soldier, a general and a civilian. Yet Levy's most unique legacy lies in his unwitting defiance of an entire zeitgeist, one that was in his time - and still remains in ours - dominated by the arrogance, pompousness and self-importance which have been the hallmark of Israeli leadership since 1967. Nowhere has Israeli bluster been cultivated more intensively than in the IDF, from which it spread deep into the political system and the entire public sector. Now Israel has not only more retired generals per square meter than any other country, but also more retired generals per square politician than any other democracy. The causes of this trend deserve a separate article, but its magnitude and impact are beyond debate: What began with a trickle already before 1967, soon became a deluge, with scores of soldiers swamping the political scene, from Mati Peled on the far-left to Rehavam Ze'evi on the far-right and countless others between them, from Rabin, Bar-Lev, Eitan and Weizman to Barak, Shahak, Vilna'i and Mofaz. Eventually, it all but went without saying that upon leaving office a commander of the Israeli army eyes the government. Eight chiefs of General Staff have made that journey since 1967, and the only ones who didn't, David Elazar and Dan Halutz, had simply lost their political fortunes after being associated with military blunders - the only ones, that is, with one exception (if we leave aside Moshe Ya'alon, whose plans remain unclear): Levy; for Moshe Levy had no recorded blunders in his past and no political ambitions in his future. As he bid the IDF farewell in 1987 Levy made his first political statement: "Politics is not for me," and thus left subordinates, pundits and political hacks scratching their heads. How better a country ours would have been if only several more of our retired chiefs of General Staff had had the wisdom and humility to say "politics is not for me," realizing they knew nothing about education, taxation, health care, welfare and the rest of what should constitute an aspiring politician's bread and butter. LEVY'S DECISION was even more unusual, considering his social background. Born in Mandatory Palestine to working-class Jews who had come there from Iraq, and having reached the public limelight just when tensions between Israelis of European and Middle Eastern origins peaked, Levy was in a position to effortlessly mount some of the country's tallest political peaks. Yet the man whose appointment as chief of General Staff was heralded in 1983 as the first time a non-Ashkenazi reached such high office would not play the game. All he had to do was call a press conference and say something like "it's time the elite made way for the masses," and he would have been lifted overnight to political stardom. There is no indication it ever crossed Levy's mind. And it's not that Levy was out to join the elites. On the contrary: While other generals made their way from humble origins confined between wheat fields and cowsheds to the big world that sprawls between Tel Aviv's glitzy luxury towers and Wall Street's IPOs, the Tel Aviv-born Levy went the other way, joining his wife at Kibbutz Beit Alfa where the retired general plowed and harvested in the fields of Jezreel Valley alongside people half his age. They say he would heartily chat with anyone who worked with him in the alfalfa and cotton fields, and that when the young were in charge of his shift, he - who at their age was the operations officer at the heart of the legendary, and bloody, Mitla Pass battle - obeyed them with no complexes or compunctions. And it's also not that Levy lacked charisma and managerial skills. When asked to head the Trans-Israel Highway project, he quietly rose to the occasion, which involved complex engineering, financing and endless court battles with landowners and assorted activists. Now Israel's most ambitious public-works project is fast approaching completion. "It's worth everyone's while," he used to retort when asked about its arguable drawbacks, "it will shorten the distances between North and South and between the center and the periphery" - which it now so obviously does. The thousands who travel the highway every hour seldom realize it was Levy who built it, much less that even while doing that he continued to lead his unpretentious kibbutznik's life, far from the madding crowds. Then again, how many realize the crucial role he played in facilitating the 1985 economic recovery? It was he who planned and executed the deepest budget cuts ever made to Israel's defense budget, the one that largely enabled the Jewish state's emergence from the brink of economic catastrophe. Most other generals would have seen in the budget cuts a challenge to their own power and resisted them. Had Levy done so, our economy might have ended up where Zimbabwe's is today. But he didn't ask "where does all this leave me"; he only asked "what's my role in getting us all out of this mess?" LEVY HIMSELF doubtfully paid much thought to this, but on the Gilboa - the mountain above his kibbutz which he so much loved to roam - King Saul, the tall farmer whose reign, the sages said, failed because he was too modest, died in battle. King Saul's tragedy was that despite his instinctive disdain for public life, he still was persuaded to join it. Moshe Levy's career makes one wonder what Saul's would have been like had he been strong enough to look power's temptation in the eye, and still say: Politics is not for me. More immediately, Moshe Levy's life of bravery, delivery and modesty makes one wonder: Why does an encounter with an Israeli leader who scorns fame, wealth, titles, spins, hobnobbing, egoism, hedonism, Machiavellianism, individualism, self-promotion and globe-trotting happen only upon his death, and feel like a visit to an archeological wonder? www.MiddleIsrael.com