Crisis of Confidence
Today, Singapore, 13/09/2006
The recent war between Hezbollah and Israel in South Lebanon has exacerbated a crisis of confidence that has developed between the Israeli public and its political leadership in recent years. Israelis were used to being lead by statesmen who had proven their mettle under the most difficult of circumstances, led the fledgling nation to great accomplishments and thus deserved the public’s full confidence. David Ben Gurion the founder of the state in 1948 and its first Prime Minister (who served a total of 9 years, not consecutively) was such a figure and even less prominent incumbents, Moshe Sharett and later Levi Eshkol, were cherished leaders who loom even larger in retrospect. But the 50ties and 60ties of the previous century were different times, the state pretty much controlled the media and generally the public had confidence in its leaders not asking too many questions.
The first big crisis came under Prime Minister Golda Meir (1969-1974) when Arab nations launched a surprise attack in October 1973 starting the Yom Kippur War and stunning an overconfident and unprepared Israel with tragic results. The successful military recovery did little to save the leaders from the wrath of the electorate and even icons like General Moshe Dayan, revered military hero, fell from grace in the fallout of the war.
What could be considered a relatively stable political era started with the election of Prime Minister Begin in 1977 and came to an end early 1996 after newcomer Benjamin Netanyahu defeated old-timer Shimon Peres, who had taken over after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
The changing of the guard from the generation of founders to which Begin, Rabin, and Peres belonged, to a new generation of leaders, first Benjamin Netanyahu (b. 1949), followed by Ehud Barak (b. 1942) who took over in 2000, did not go over well. Netanyahu and Barak, intelligent and accomplished men showed great promise but performed poorly in office, both losing their jobs before completing their terms.
The double failure of the younger generation brought about the return of an unlikely relic from the founding days when Arik Sharon replaced Ehud Barak as Prime Minister in 2001 at the young age of 73. In an amazing feat considering his controversial persona, he managed to reestablish the public’s faith in its political leaders by executing a daring political maneuver, Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. His sad and unexpected departure from the political scene in January 2006 put another youngster into the driver’s seat, Ehud Olmert (b. 1945), no statesman but an accomplished politician and wheeler-dealer.
As it looks now, PM Ehud Olmert could well follow in the footsteps of Netanyahu and Barak. His poor leadership performance during the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, his shortsightedness in resisting the appointment of an official commission of inquiry, his lack of emotional intelligence and flexibility when dealing with the Palestinians and last not least, some legal problems, may serve to shorten his tenure.
The public is looking for an alternative and none appears on the horizon. Netanyahu and Barak are waiting in the wings for Olmert to trip up but their public appeal is decidedly limited – the memories of their failures are still fresh. Left with none of the founding fathers (except for Peres, b. 1923), a couple of short term ex-PM’s who didn’t just do a poor job but caused some real damage and some untested newcomers, a profound crisis of confidence with the political process is taking root. It has manifested itself through decreased participation in general elections, the crumbling of established political parties and widespread distrust of politicians. Now some people are calling for a change in the system of government suggesting that a republican system like in the US or France would be preferable to the present parliamentary democracy. But it is not only the system that is problematic – Israel’s younger leaders generally do not project hope, they do not particularly strive for peace, they spread dire warnings of wars to come, disillusioned mainly by their own failings, not something people are likely to put confidence in.
The job of the Prime Minister of Israel is probably one of the most demanding in the world. The challenges are huge, the possibilities to effect change limited and the dangers immense. Not surprising then that regular run of the mill politicos are not up to the job. There is plenty of talent in the wings – this would be a good time for somebody to step forward.