No more Mr. Nice Guys

Judge leaders by their actions, not by their likability.

Barak Im gonna kill you 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Barak Im gonna kill you 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
As well as not being nice, Ehud Barak is also no comic actor, as his rictus-grinning performance last week on the satirical TV show Eretz Nehederet proved. There is always something horribly embarrassing when serious politicians feel the need to try and prove they are "in touch" with the voters by appearing on such programs, particularly when the security situation demands their full attention. True, the jokes against Barak were funny and successfully continued Labor's strategy of attacking its leader before other parties do, thus removing much of the sting of such attacks. But while the ability to laugh at oneself is an admirable virtue, the elections are not JDate, and a great sense of humor is not the defining attribute of a good prime minister. Still, Barak showed a willingness to address his electoral weaknesses. This contrasts strongly with the self-important sentiments of outgoing Kadima MK Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, who failed to make it to a realistic spot on the Kadima list in the recent party primary. Like Barak, Ben-Yisrael is a former general, and he is also a mathematician, physicist and philosopher, who twice won the Israel Prize in Security Studies. In other words, or as Ben-Yisrael himself put it, he is an "excellent" person. Ben-Yisrael entered politics after being handpicked by Ariel Sharon for the Kadima list in the last elections, which saved him from having to do anything as undignified as asking people to vote for him. AFTER A fairly anonymous two years in the Knesset, Ben-Yisrael failed to make much of an impression among Kadima members. But rather than accept that the fault might lie with him, he argued in a stunningly narcissistic newspaper interview last week that the problem of his non-reelection lay in the political system which conspired against "quality people" like himself. While one shares his disdainful view of his party colleagues Yoel Hasson and Ruhama Avraham-Balila, the fact that they are "better wheeler-dealers" than Ben-Yisrael might actually mean they are better suited to politics than the retired general. This is not necessarily the tragedy for Israeli political life that Ben-Yisrael makes it out to be, although having Ruhama Avraham as a cabinet minister does give pause for thought. Intellect alone is not the defining quality for a national leader - if so, Barak would be comfortably riding high in the polls. Unlike Ben-Yisrael, Barak has the intellect to understand this. Hence the appearance on Eretz Nehederet to try to appeal to the wider public, as well as a recent magazine interview in which he, unconvincingly it has to be said, revealed: "I can be emotional to the point of tears. Even a good movie can move me to tears..." PUTTING THE hankies to one side, Ben-Yisrael did make one valid point in his interview - his criticism of the media: "Is there anyone who knows what Ruhama Avraham-Balila's opinions are on the issues of security and the economy? No one knows because no one has bothered to ask. The newspapers write gossip and don't write about fundamentals, They are occupied by the esoteric, the sensational and the piquant. They do not take an interest in achievement and content, but rather in politics and celebrity." Now it's probably fair to say that any newspaper edited by Ben-Yisrael would prove a stultifyingly boring read, but once the dust settles on the operation in Gaza, the media does need to switch gears and do more to nail down the candidates, particularly the three main party leaders: Barak, Binyamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, and see where they stand on the issues facing the country. LIKE SO many other trends, the appearance of self-lampooning politicians on comedy shows or deliberately low-brow interview programs has been imported from the United States. Unfortunately, the American tradition of the televised presidential debate has not. While the general elections here are not presidential, there is still room for at least one debate among the leaders of the major parties to allow them to be cross-questioned on a variety of issues. Election slogans might be cute, but they do not answer the questions voters have concerning the country's future, and the electorate deserves more than a three-word message from the parties seeking their vote. Netanyahu, as the leader in the opinion polls, in particular deserves closer scrutiny, especially his spurious talk of "economic peace." If the path to peace with Palestinians lies in improving their economy, and not ending the occupation, just how does he explain the fact that the first intifada erupted after about two decades of prosperity, the likes of which the Palestinian economy had never before experienced? The second intifada, it should be noted, also followed a number of years of impressive Palestinian economic growth. Livni, too, needs a serious grilling on where exactly she stands, both on diplomatic and economic issues. We know frighteningly little about what our would-be second woman prime minister truly believes. OUTSIDE THE comedy studio, Barak showed his true mettle this weekend with the launch of the IDF's attack on the Gaza Strip; it is on such actions, and the intellectual arguments underpinning them, and not just on their likability, that our leaders should be judged. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.