Take Me to Your Leader
Very elegant Mr. Ya’alon. Calling U.S. Secretary of State Kerry messianic and obsessed, and wishing him to quickly “receive the Nobel peace prize and leave us alone” is a very creative way of mending the shaky relations with the American administration. I know it was a closed discussion, but surely, as one of the few contenders for the position of Israel’s future Prime Minister, one would hope that you could be a bit more conscientious of the words you utter. But hey- quoted only a day after Ariel Sharon was buried, thank you for the reminder that Israel is in dire shortage of leaders.
Despite predictions by Israeli officials that international attendance at Sharon’s funeral would be limited given the long time since he stepped down from the political and diplomatic map, dozens of world leaders and politicians, chief among them U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, attended the funeral. Many delegations attended the funeral, including dozens of foreign dignitaries who listened to eulogies by Biden, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in addition to eulogies given by Israel’s top officials. For dozens of years, Sharon symbolized Israel’s brute force and power. Yet the passing of the Israeli military and political leader made headlines not only across the Middle East but also around the world, and in almost every language.
Why did Sharon’s passing draw so much international attention?
It seems to me that Israelis, and those living outside Israel alike, realize that Sharon’s passing heralds the end of a generation. They also recognize the severe leadership crisis of the Jewish state. Looking to the left and to the right, there seems to be no new Sharon in the offing. It seems to me that not only Israelis, but others around the world too, miss him or someone of his caliber.
Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is a lame duck. Despite the fact that he was the sitting Prime Minister, and the fact that he faced no other contender of a high caliber, Netanyahu took a beating in the last elections when his Likud party won just 20 seats of the 120-seat Knesset. Indeed, had it not been for the last-minute merger with Yisrael Beitenu — the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which secured 11 more seats — Netanyahu would have lost the elections. Paradoxically, even though he is personally unpopular and although his results in the last elections were disappointing, when Israelis are asked who from among the relevant contenders is best suited to be Prime Minister, Netanyahu gets the most votes, around 40%, far ahead of the other would-be contenders Isaac Herzog, Avigdor Lieberman, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni.
In what is an extremely rare political situation, Netanyahu remains alone in Israel’s political ring, despite the fact that the Israeli public has little appreciation or regard for him. Israelis don’t like him, but are aware of the simple yet sad reality that there is no one else. And as Ya’alon has proved, this situation may take a while to change. Netanyahu is a lame duck, but there is nobody really threatening his position. Netanyahu, or King Bibi as his close supporters like to call him, will reign uncontested in the unforeseeable future.
How did Israel end up with such a leadership crisis? The most obvious reason is time. Israel’s “founding fathers” aged and gradually passed away. In addition, Israel’s political establishment has taken some steps intended to block the introduction of new forces into the system, the most dramatic of these being the adoption a few years ago of the “cooling-off law.” In accordance with this law, senior military and police officers as well as senior security officials must undergo a three-year cooling-off period before going into politics. Until this law passed, the defense establishment was Israel’s melting pot for grooming leaders. When a country is surrounded by so many enemies and its existence is imperiled around the clock, it is only natural for a military past to be one of the prerequisites for political success. For years, Israel’s leadership renewed its ranks and human resources through its military: Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, Yitzhak Rabin, Ya’alon. This stream of people was stopped almost overnight.
The consequences of these processes are both serious and worrying. As I described in “This Coming Summer“, Israel needs to make crucial decisions in 2014, yet there is nobody to make them. It needs courageous leadership, but it has no leader. From the outside, Israel appears – mainly by comparison to its neighbors – as an island of stability and security. From the inside, however, Israel is a country that has lost its bearings and is in search of a leader.