It is somewhat depressing to observe the stark contrasts between the caliber and extraordinary dedication of Israel’s founding fathers and our more recent leaders.
This would perhaps be understandable if we were now living in normal times. But alas that does not apply to our current situation. Despite incredible, even miraculous achievements at every level, the only country in the world still facing deadly ongoing existential threats from its neighbors cannot be described as normal.
If one reviews the record of Israeli leaders from all political streams since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, it is clear that over the past two decades, the new breed is more self-centered and frequently more inclined to promoting personal and political ambition above the national interest.
David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Menahem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin being witnesses to the Holocaust and deeply involved personally in the bitter struggle to create a Jewish state, were leaders who had all been forged in fire. They were also all obliged to make momentous decisions which carried existential implications. Binyamin Netanyahu is now also about to be confronted with such a crisis.
Irrespective of the merits of the policies they adopted, the early leaders were unquestionably solely motivated by what they believed would benefit the Jewish people and promote the national interest. Unlike their successors, they displayed determined leadership qualities, willing to bite the bullet and take tough decisions without sending out trial balloons to ascertain whether their actions would generate public support. If they believed a course of action would benefit the nation, they usually went ahead, disregarding the negative impact on their political standing.
The old guard was, without exception, also indifferent and usually even contemptuous of the “good life”. Ben Gurion originated as a laborer and retired to Kibbutz Sde Boker where he resumed his simple lifestyle. Likewise, throughout his life, Menahem Begin chose to live a frugal lifestyle and resisted offers by many of his admirers to upgrade the standard of his very modest accommodation. In contrast, most of our current leaders have displayed crass hedonism in their behavior and lifestyles.
That is not to suggest that the Mapai establishment was pristine pure. To obtain a decent position in public service, one required “Protektsia”, commonly referred to as “Vitamin P”. Thus former Etzel supporters and opponents of Labor faced blatant discrimination. Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir was frequently accused of “encouraging” entrepreneurs who secured contracts for Israeli business investments to “contribute” to designated charities and occasionally to the Labor party.
This “institutional” political corruption probably laid the foundations for the personal dishonesty that subsequently ensued. But in the early days, it was simply inconceivable for a major political leader to exploit his position for personal financial gain.
Thus, when Labor Minister for Housing, Avraham Ofer, was accused of corruption, he committed suicide. During his first term of office, when Prime Minister Rabin’s wife was disclosed as having retained an illegal foreign account – a technical breach not involving income tax or other serious financial transgressions – he resigned forthwith. Had such a minor breach involving a PM or Minister occurred in recent times, it would merely have created a brief media flutter and been forgotten.
Be that as it may. The fact that the Labor party occupied such a dominant role in the political arena, promoted stability and encouraged serious internal debates and genuinely painful evaluations on how to further the national interest.
Yet, once the era of Labor hegemony ended, the appalling electoral system progressively led to fragmentation and the empowerment and excessive leverage of one-dimensional political parties – especially haredi parties – which due to their crucial role in the formation of coalition governments gave them enormous power.
This also led to the demise of cabinet responsibility. From that point, individual ministers began behaving increasingly like mini prime ministers, even publicly condemning the policies of their own government without feeling obliged to resign. Political nihilism became the order of the day, reaching its climax with the current Foreign Minister publicly repudiating his Prime Minister whenever he felt it would benefit his domestic constituency.
Under such chaotic circumstances, it is surely no surprise that most talented Israelis are loath to become engaged in politics.
Yet, ironically, despite media portrayal to the contrary, there is probably a greater consensus throughout the country today over security issues than at any time since the great divide instigated by the Oslo Accords.
Aside from the extreme right and the extreme left, most Israelis have rejected Greater Israel and have no desire to rule over Palestinians. Having witnessed how previous unilateral territorial concessions have on every occasion undermined our security, they also oppose making further compromises in the absence of reciprocity.
Under normal circumstances that should have led to stable government. But due to the electoral system, fragmentation reigns supreme.
The issue could have been resolved had Likud and Kadima joined forces after the last election. There are basically no ideological differences between both parties and their failure to form a broad centrist government after the last elections was primarily due to personal ego and lack of political foresight of Kadima leaders. Had they done so, they could once and for all, have reformed the entire electoral system, eliminated the extortion power of the smaller parties and allowed us to implement desperately needed social changes. It would also have enabled us to speak with a united voice and more effectively confront the global pressures we face.
Instead, Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who as PM would have been obliged to implement virtually identical policies as Netanyahu, continues lambasting him, even when she is abroad.
The problem is accentuated by the fact that many Israelis, fed up with the leading parties, are inclined to vote for personalities rather than policies. Thus at the next elections, with Yair Lapid and Aryeh Deri poised to launch new parties, we are likely to face even further fragmentation and chaos.
If sufficient MKs were willing to prioritize the national interest and set aside their petty short-term personal agendas, promoting electoral reform would be one of their greatest priorities.
Time again we are told that efforts to achieve electoral reform cannot possibly succeed because the haredi parties occupy such crucial roles in determining the composition of any government.
Yet if people power is implemented by voters threatening to punish parties which refuse to promote reform, the leading parties would be obliged to respond, especially now with new independent parties threatening to siphon off their disgruntled voters.
With the highly complex and difficult internal and external challenges confronting us, reform of the electoral system should be our top priority. Success would enable us to introduce major changes that would impact positively on our lives and our relationship with the entire world. It would also attract a much higher caliber quality of leadership to politics.
The writer may be contacted at [email protected]
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom