With the impending release of the Winograd Report, most Israelis will be mulling over the future of their current leadership. Those old enough will recollect with nostalgia the extraordinary quality of the Israelis who led the country from its inception to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Some will be asking themselves why, in recent years, Israel has been afflicted with such a disastrous crop of unsuccessful and failed politicians who to this day remain unwilling to accept accountability for their failures. Indeed, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has brazenly announced that he has no intention of resigning regardless of what Winograd says.
In the past, outstanding leaders who affected the course of history – for better or for worse – were usually men consumed by a vision or a cause. They held views that were often initially unacceptable to the public and obliged to undergo periods as lonely outsiders. Often enough, prior to obtaining popular support, they were marginalized, dismissed as wild visionaries and sometimes even condemned as dangerous extremists.
Take, for example, Winston Churchill. It was only well after Munich, when Neville Chamberlain’s policies of appeasement had become utterly discredited, that Britons ceased branding Churchill an irresponsible warmonger.
The same applied to the early Zionist leaders and the founding fathers of Israel.
Theodor Herzl was regarded by most Western and educated Jews as an eccentric, promoting utterly unfeasible utopian ideas. Even within the Zionist movement itself, David Ben-Gurion faced enormous opposition as he battled unflinchingly for Jewish independence, emerging as the dominant leader only in the wake of the Holocaust.
That also applied to those who succeeded him. The most extreme example was Menachem Begin. Seven times he lost elections and for almost 30 years was all but ostracized, shamefully vilified, and even condemned as a fascist until his extraordinary electoral victory in 1977. Today he is recognized as one of our greatest national leaders.
What did these people of varying political persuasions share? They all had visions and strategies in which they genuinely believed and were convinced would best serve the interests of the nation. They stood their ground and refused to be dissuaded even when public opinion was opposed to their ideas. Rarely did they allow a personal agenda to intrude or influence the formulation of policy.
In many cases, when they recognized that they had reached an impasse and could no longer pursue their objectives, or concluded that they had failed, they voluntarily resigned. That applied to Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Begin.
In other words, until recently, the underlying motivation of most Israeli leaders of all hues was an unhesitating willingness to prioritize the interests of the nation above any personal agenda. Of course, they made mistakes and were at times utterly misguided. But neither public opinion nor a lust to cling to power could conceivably have led them to subordinating what they perceived to be the best interests of the people.
That was as true of Rabin as it was of others. In the course of time, even after Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin had dragged him against his will into endorsing the Oslo debacle, he convinced himself that in order to forestall the impending nuclearization of Iraq and Iran, the national interest required that he make peace with Israel’s immediate neighbors even if it entailed a gamble. That the gamble subsequently proved to be a disaster does not detract from the sincerity of his objective. Despite his failures, nobody could conclude that Rabin’s failures stemmed from a crass desire to gain popular support or retain power.
It was during the leadership of Ehud Barak that the strategic long-term interests of the nation became relegated to a secondary position and were subordinated to a personal agenda. Barak’s policy zig-zags reached their climax toward the end of his term, by which time he was already making statements in the afternoon which contradicted those he had expressed in the morning. His policies were increasingly determined not by what he perceived to be in the public interest, but by public opinion. From that point, polls, not principles, determined the national interest.
Ariel Sharon refined this approach into an art form, utilizing the services of pollsters and PR spin doctors as never before. All this has now reached its most cynical climax under Olmert, whose entire agenda gives the appearance of being dominated by his all-too-transparent overriding obsession to remain in office. To promote this, he has been tailoring his policies to blend in with vox populi as reflected in opinion polls. Yet even this has failed to enhance his ratings.
Olmert has also used the Prime Minister’s Office and encouraged associates such as Haim Ramon to test the waters on every major issue in order to gauge public opinion before introducing new policies. When there was a strong negative response from the public (as when Ramon suggested handing over jurisdiction of the Temple Mount to the Palestinians), Olmert simply backed down.
Needless to say, it is entirely legitimate and even obligatory for politicians to utilize opinion polls to ascertain the mood of the nation.
But over the past few years this has gotten out of control. Today Israel has become a haven for pollsters and spin merchants. In fact, it is fair to state that today most potentially contentious policies are not being determined on what is considered to be the national interest. They are resolved only after being superficially approved by the fickle public via the medium of telephone opinion polls.
The same also applies to most political parties, with the possible exception of the ideologically motivated religious, hard-Left and ultra-Right.
Thus, today a large proportion of the political establishment also formulates its policy primarily on the basis of the number of votes it estimates will be gained: National mood as manipulated by spin doctors and not national interest has become the order of the day. We have become like a ship without a rudder.
Today, Olmert’s failure as a leader has become transparent. But there is a danger that without renewed recognition of the role that responsible leaders must assume, the underlying problems of leadership could become institutionalized even after he retires.
What is needed? First and foremost, genuine leaders as opposed to self-gratifying politicians. Leaders who will determine policies and respond to challenges on the basis of only one criterion – and it isn’t how many votes such policies will generate, or whether “the street” approves of them. Long-term strategies must be based exclusively on national interests, even if that requires campaigning to persuade the nation to consider its collective destiny rather than personal or sectional aggrandizement.
The writer is a veteran international Jewish leader. firstname.lastname@example.org
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