The English word “killer” - pronounced “keelerr”, with a guttural r - has long been integrated into the Israeli language. It can be used literally, to describe someone who actually does away with other people, or figuratively, to denote a person who is efficient and ruthless. The Hebrew version does not contain the English slang meaning of excellence, but it nonetheless includes an element of grudging admiration.
About a decade ago, if you will excuse my self-citation, I wrote an article about the “killer principle” of Israeli politics, which states that all things being equal, the winner in Israeli elections will inevitably be the candidate who has killed more enemies in combat, or is at least perceived as being capable of doing so. As I will show in just a few paragraphs, the principle held true in each and ever election since 1977, when the Likud first came to power.
But even though this penchant for a leader who is also a “keelerr” derives from Israel’s unique history and psychology, it may also be applicable, under another name perhaps, in American politics as well. In fact, although I have read several articles about Barack Obama’s advantage over Mitt Romney in “likeability”, I suspect that in recent days he has been trying to go the other way and to bolster his image of “lethality.”
By unabashedly leading the in-your-face, no-apologies-whatsoever assault on Romney over his missing years at Bain Capital and his AWOL tax returns, Obama is trying to intimidate his Republican rival, to spook him and to rattle him and to humiliate him. When Rahm Emmanuel and other Obama supporters tell Romney to “stop whining” they are clearly trying to juxtapose a rough and tough Obama with a spoiled and crybaby Romney. After initially falling straight into Obama’s trap, Romney and his campaign managers appear to have caught on to Obama’s game and are now belatedly trying to get in some punches of their own.
Now ask yourself this: in recent presidential lineups, which candidate seemed to be the tougher and more resolute of the two candidates, or in other words – which was the potential “killer” – a concept that is often bolstered by age and background - and which was the “wimp”: Nixon or McGovern? Carter or Ford? Carter or Reagan? Reagan or Mondale? Bush or Dukakis? Clinton or Bush Sr? Clinton or Bob Dole? Bush or Al Gore? Bush or John Kerry?
In fact, the only matchup that seems be an uneasy fit to our theory is the one that pitted Obama against former US Navy pilot and POW John McCain and his moose-murdering sidekick, Sarah Palin. But 2008 may have been the exception that proves the rule: after eight years of Bush and Cheney, Americans may have overdosed on diplomatic testosterone – never mind the collapsing economy – and chosen the supposedly more benign and peaceful candidate.
In Israel, the predictive ability of the what we might call the “killer quotient” is unequivocal: Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, both commanders of pre-state underground movements who personally gave orders that brought about the deaths of hundreds, defeated Labor leader Shimon Peres, who was immensely qualified but had no combat experience whatsoever, 4 times in a row – in 1977, 1981, 1984 and 1988. But when Yitzhak Rabin came along in 1992, the former IDF chief, hero of the Six Day War and coiner of the callous order to “break the legs and hands” of Palestinian demonstrators in the first intifada, defeated Shamir and brought Labor back to power. In 1996, it was the elite Sayeret Matkal graduate Netanyahu - who not only walked the walk but talked the talk of eating Yasser Arafat for breakfast - who once again trumped Peres the peacenik, despite what Peres’ critics claim was his artificial last-minute attempt to buy “keelerr” credentials in Operation Grapes of Wrath.
In 1999, Bibi was blown away in turn by his former Sayeret commander Ehud Barak, another IDF chief of staff whose exploits in pushing Arab terrorists to meet their maker was the stuff of legend and folklore. But Barak was no match in 2001 for Ariel Sharon, the all time Israeli record holder in no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners form of combat, never mind the incongruently demure and soft-spoken former IDF general Amram Mitzna, about whom I originally wrote the “killer principle” article after his defeat in 2003.
Sharon’s coattails were so resilient that they carried Ehud Olmert, another noncombatant, to victory in the 2006 elections, but in 2009 Netanyahu was back, facing a candidate who, among other things, had no claim to fame in the “keelerr” department, even though her spin doctors unashamedly tried to market Tzipi Livni’s years in the Mossad as an indication of potential lethality.
One can safely assume that if Obama had ordered the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2012 instead of May 2011, he wouldn’t need to be slinging mud mano a mano with Romney now in order to prove his hard-hearted manliness. But people have notoriously short memories and that burst of momentary elation when Americans looked up to Obama as the ruthless cowboy who will get the job done at any cost is long gone and forgotten and needs to be revived, one way or another.
Although, come to think of it, there’s always Iran…
Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev
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