Israel’s crisis of leadership

Israel is in the throes of a grave crisis of leadership. General elections are scheduled for Feb. 10, and there is no widely respected or overwhelmingly popular leader in sight. Even with the existential threat of a nuclear Iran looming over the country, the candidates and party lists are unattractive, the political landscape bleak.

Ehud Olmert, the caretaker prime minister who has been running the country since 2006, is on his way to a corruption trial. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, the heads, respectively, of the Labor Party and the Likud Party, are both discredited ex-prime ministers. Barak’s back story is that he offered the Palestinians too many concessions in 2000 and garnered only a resounding “no” (along with an unprecedented wave of terrorism). Netanyahu, who was prime minister from 1996 to 1999, did nothing at all to further the peace process.

The third major candidate in February’s elections is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the centrist Kadima party (founded in 2005) and who is a relative novice with no real experience in the crucial realm of security. And she lacks charisma.

How have we gotten to this point? For one thing, the Labor Party, which led the Zionist movement to statehood and headed Israel’s governments from 1948 (when David Ben-Gurion became prime minister) to 1977, is on the ropes. Last week, polls predicted that Labor would emerge with only 12 seats in the 120-member Knesset in the coming elections, down from 19 in 2006. In 1951, Labor won 45 seats and, in 1969, 56. During the last few years the party has suffered major defections, including the 85-year-old president of Israel, Shimon Peres, who is now in Kadima, as well as Yossi Beilin, the astute dove who has abandoned politics altogether, and Avraham Burg, a longtime Knesset member turned businessman.

Likud, to be sure, emerged from the primary season with something of a face-lift, with the addition of Moshe Ya’alon, an ex-Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, and the return to its ranks of hard-liner Benny Begin, a former minister and son of party founder Menachem Begin, and Dan Meridor, a liberal former justice minister. But the voters’ selection of religious extremist Moshe Feiglin and some of his supporters for the party list of Knesset candidates means that Netanyahu, if he becomes the next prime minister (as seems likely, according to the polls), will be severely hobbled in any effort to negotiate with the Palestinians or with the Arab states. No clear policy can emerge from this mishmash.

Kadima, made up in equal measure of defectors from the right and left, offers no political certainties either, though it no doubt will figure large in any future coalition government.

The left-wing Meretz party is back in the news after the recent mobilization of some of the country’s leading intellectuals, including novelists Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, on its behalf. But the polls show that the expanded party will not win more than 6% to 7% of the electorate.

All of this is a far cry from Zionism’s first 100 years, when there was ideological certainty and single-mindedness, and when dedicated men were at the helm. During Israel’s first existential crisis, in 1948, when the emergent Jewish state (population 650,000) was attacked by the Arabs, Ben-Gurion presided with a sure hand and firmly steered Israel to victory and international recognition. (Compare that with Olmert’s thickheaded, hesitant leadership during the 2006 Lebanon war). Ideological yet pragmatic, Ben-Gurion labored around the clock (his children barely saw or knew him) and accrued no personal wealth (he died in a hut in the desert kibbutz of Sde Boker).

His immediate successors, whatever their shortcomings, were similarly fueled by Zionist ardor and public-mindedness. Moshe Sharett (Labor), Levi Eshkol (Labor), Golda Meir (Labor) and Menachem Begin (Likud) did not become wealthy in their jobs, and they all died, in their various ways, broken, crushed by the weight of terrible office and unforgiving circumstances. Ariel Sharon, the Likudnik turned Kadima founder who was prime minister from 2001 to 2005, and who has been in a stroke-induced coma since 2006, also was a hardheaded true believer.

The current set are a wholly different breed. Olmert, Netanyahu and Barak have all spent years amassing personal wealth, hugely helped by their years and connections in office. (Livni, in this respect, is an exception. Colleagues testify to her clean hands and austere personality.)

In a sense these self-serving, affluent leaders are an apt reflection of the development and character of Israeli society over the last few decades: a shift from the idea of the collective to the cult of individualism, from socialism to capitalism, from lean youth to middle-aged paunch.

In Israel’s case, the leadership crisis also has much to do with its over-democratic electoral system of proportional representation, in which a multiplicity of small parties in the Knesset and the inevitability of weak coalition governments guarantee a relative inability to govern (or to govern for long). The mismanagement of the 2006 Lebanon war -- the politicians and generals afraid to incur too many Israeli casualties out of fear of the wrath of the electorate, or to inflict too many on the Lebanese for fear of international and internal condemnation -- was emblematic.

The last decades’ steady erosion of the Zionist ethos has an unusual if in some ways apt representative in Avraham Burg. With him, the erosion has not merely followed the route from public service to private enterprise but also to well-publicized anti-Zionist posturing. This from a man who was chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization (1995-1999) and speaker of the Knesset (1999-2003) -- a veritable embodiment of Zionism.

But in his new book, “The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes,” which describes his intellectual evolution, Burg argues that Israel is a sick society, “a ghetto of belligerent colonialism,” “paranoid” and “schizophrenic,” mostly as a result of the Holocaust. The Shoah, he writes, wields an “absolute monopoly” over “every aspect of” Israeli life. It explains, according to Burg, why Israel has been unable to make peace with the Arab world, and the Palestinians in particular, and why Israel is the “neighborhood bully.”

Last I heard, Burg was trying to make a comeback by joining the expanded Meretz party, though party stalwarts and the recently mobilized intellectuals are trying to keep him at arm’s length. But given its size, Meretz is irrelevant today.

Much more worrisome is the broader leadership crisis, which means that Israel after Feb. 10 will be confronting Iran, with its nuclear ambitions, and Iran’s neighborhood proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, with no firm hand on the tiller and with no widely respected figure at the helm. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is an Israel governed during the next four years by a Netanyahu-Livni-Barak triumvirate. Without doubt, this only adds one more troubling variable for President-elect Barack Obama as he gloomily scans the Middle East for some ray of hope.

Benny Morris is the author of many books about the Israeli-Arab conflict, including, most recently, “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.”