From Obama to Olmert: Leaders and legacies

The ghosts of David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Golda Meir are probably sad that their pictures are hanging in the same row alongside Olmert’s on the wall inside Israel’s highest office.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert (photo credit: ELI MANDELBAUM)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert
(photo credit: ELI MANDELBAUM)
Leaders seek a legacy, an experience or heritage that defines their time in office, and even those who fail at their jobs succeed in leaving one.
What will be the legacy of a recent collection of leaders drawn from the United States, Israel, France, Germany, Egypt, Russia, Syria and Turkey? US President Barack Obama certainly succeeded in his desire to be a “transformational” president, but maybe not in the way he planned. Obama promised “hope and change,” but he has brought hype and chaos. His health program is an unmitigated disaster that did not fix the problems plaguing small parts of the US health care system but, instead, broke the larger parts of the system that worked pretty well. Doctors are closing their offices, and people who had insurance have lost their coverage or will be paying more.
Despite huge public support and large majorities in Congress, Obama presided over the slowest post-WWII “recovery” in American history, where the official unemployment figures (about seven percent) concealed a shocking reality of huge sectors of people so unable to find jobs that they have stopped looking.
In foreign affairs, Obama wanted to keep the US out of war, but instead made the country into an irrelevant factor in many areas of the world. Obama’s acts, statements, inaction or dithering sowed the seeds for many current and future conflicts in Egypt, Syria, Israel-Palestinians, Iran, Iraq, Crimea and Afghanistan.
And what about other leaders around the world? Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is the man who at first followed the legacy of Anwar Sadat, slowing Egypt’s internal economic decline and assisting in being part of the community of nations, only to throw this legacy away by trying to crown his own son as successor.
Turkish autocrat Recep Erdogan will be remembered as the man who re-Islamized Turkey, who stabilized its economy and then, in search of grandeur, cut domestic political freedoms to cover up his own power-hungry corruption.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will be remembered as a man on horseback, who defied a largely passive world to re-capture “Russian” or “Soviet” real estate but who ultimately lost the chance to lead Russia away from second- rate status, higher disease and mortality rates and internal disunion.
Francois Hollande of France will be remembered as a feckless tinkerer in his own country’s economy who put all his energy into pedaling his bicycle to romantic trysts.
Germany’s Angela Merkel is the leader who kept the shaky European political-monetary union from collapsing, while keeping Germany “uber alles” – above all. But she did not lead the needed reform to guard Europe from a rising hostile internal Islamic threat.
NOW, AS to Israeli leaders, they come in three categories: those who cared about their country, those who cared about themselves and those who got into trouble through their wives.
David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir were all non-Israel-born leaders who had a sense of Jewish history and who saw themselves as servants of something greater than themselves.
From Ben-Gurion to Shamir, the prime ministers were leaders who, despite their differences and faults, lived relatively modest personal lives and certainly did not enter and leave the highest office as a way of making money or boosting themselves.
The most recent crop of prime ministers includes three men whose concern with themselves – their wealth, their comfort, their image – led them to corruption and even to a willingness to make dangerous political concessions as a way to cling to power: Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
They were the most self-seeking leaders in the modern history of Israel, and each risked the fate of citizens and the future of the country with dangerous unilateral gambits (such as withdrawal from Gaza or splitting Jerusalem) in order to grab status as peace-makers and save themselves.
In recent weeks, Ehud Olmert has added a new layer to his legacy: conviction on bribery charges. This is probably not the last charge Olmert will face, and it is likely he will be the first Israeli prime minister to go to jail.
Yitzhak Rabin and Binyamin Netanyahu fall into a kind of middle group: native-born Israelis who distinguished themselves in the diplomatic or military arena in their pre-prime-ministerial roles and who were full of promise that was not always fulfilled after they entered office, perhaps because they were not seasoned politicians.
They had periods of leadership that were sometimes overshadowed by the indiscretions of their wives.
Rabin was forced to leave office after his wife’s bank account was discovered. Netanyahu’s has had a few embarrassing dust-ups because of his wife, which have distracted him.
The ghosts of David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin and Golda Meir are probably sad that their pictures are hanging in the same row alongside Olmert’s on the wall inside Israel’s highest office.
The writer is author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat, published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar-Ilan University, was strategic affairs advisor in Israel’s Public Security Ministry and is the Schusterman visiting professor at University of California, Irvine for 2013-14.