Devalued norms

Barak's decision to stay put underlines the corrosive spread of the new, devalued political norms.

Barak 224 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Barak 224 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Opinion polls underline the firm public sense that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should have tendered his resignation over his mishandling of the Second Lebanon War, as mercilessly detailed in the Winograd Committee's interim and final reports. The replication in Gaza of some of the many mistakes made in that war against Hizbullah - the lack of forward planning, the basing of decisions on assumptions rather than facts, the inadequate evaluation of the consequences of certain policies, the absent public diplomacy, and more - has confirmed the ongoing lack of expertise and of crucial decision-making processes that characterize his leadership. Yet the prime minister is not going anywhere. Menachem Begin and Golda Meir both experienced disastrous wartime failures that were largely the fault of the defense establishment. History, and in Meir's case a state commission appointed in the war's aftermath, to a large extent exonerated both for these blunders. Yet both ultimately stepped down because they felt shame, and felt the pain, too, of those who had paid the price for the misjudgments of their underlings. This was enough. In Olmert's case, the fact that the vast majority of the electorate profoundly disapproves of his leadership and believes he must step down over the war's missteps; the fact that reservists who may be called upon again sooner or later to risk their lives following his decisions now mistrust his judgments; the fact that a committee of inquiry has detailed a dire catalogue of failures for which he bears ultimate responsibility - all these have produced no such effect. Instead, the prime minister is thriving in the area where he is indeed expert - political survival. Thus the Winograd Committee's final report - which found that he and the rest of the political and military leadership failed miserably in preparing for war, in understanding how the war should be fought, and in effectively overseeing that war once he had decided to begin it - has been presented by his media managers as something of an exoneration. The Winograd Committee did not exonerate him. It only noted that his incompetence in managing a country at war was not downright criminal or rooted in illegitimate motives. Thus, too, the prime minister continues to insist that "taking responsibility" means holding onto his job and correcting failures of competence and capability that the ongoing mishandling of Gaza demonstrates he is quite unable to correct. Thus, again, the prime minister issues statements asserting his confidence in the Israel Defense Forces - itself heavily criticized by the Winograd panel - the better to deflect attention from his own failings. The IDF, however, has a new chief of General Staff since the war, and is unquestionably deep into a process of genuine reform. Not so, unfortunately, the highest echelon of our political hierarchy. Yesterday, to nobody's surprise, Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced that he would not, after all, be honoring a promise to issue a "you resign or I will" ultimatum to the prime minister following the publication of the final Winograd Report. It is said that Barak was torn between his belief that Olmert should indeed be held accountable for the Second Lebanon War and resign, and his concern that Israel could not afford a destabilizing election campaign just now. But Barak is also well aware that his polling scores are dreadful, and that he and Labor would fare abysmally were he to bring down the government and force elections in the near future. If the prime minister were not prepared to genuinely take responsibility, Barak must have concluded, why should he, the defense minister now vitally safeguarding the public, give up his post? Why should he even risk losing it by trying to pressure Kadima to select an alternative prime minister from within its ranks? Barak's decision to stay put, allied with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's silence in the face of the final Winograd Report, indeed, underlines the corrosive spread of the new, devalued political norms. Survival at all costs is the name of the game now, at the expense of accountability and of responsibility. Dangerously, these declining norms are in turn exacerbating the political listlessness and alienation that have overwhelmed the Israeli public. The ability to feel and act on shame, once eroded, unfortunately, is difficult to rebuild. However long the Olmert government manages to survive in office, one fears the devalued political culture it has embraced will be with us for a lot longer.