The Labor Party primaries have once again reminded us that the most foolish thing a politician can do is to come out with declarations and make promises before election day. Politicians' promises tend to stick to them, and they become the butt of their adversaries' jokes.
Ehud Barak learned this lesson from the list of promises he distributed to voters in 1999 and did not achieve, and this time he maintained a relative silence. MK Ami Ayalon, who is less experienced, got entangled in confused statements about his future participation in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, and this damaged his most precious asset, his clean and reliable image. If he wins in the second round and circumstances lead him to serve as a minister under Olmert, what will be said then?
Israeli leaders tend to suffer from a lack of trustworthiness because of declarations they have not adhered to. "Not one inch," Menachem Begin said, and he returned Sinai. Yitzhak Shamir opposed international conferences, and he went to Madrid. Yitzhak Rabin was needled for his statement that anyone who came down from the Golan Heights "would abandon, abandon" Israel's security. Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not meet with Yasser Arafat, Barak said he would not divide Jerusalem and would also look after the elderly woman in the hospital corridor, and Olmert said he would fight until the abducted soldiers returned from Lebanon.
All made fools of themselves. But not keeping promises is not just an image problem. The demand that leaders keep their word is also the source of the political instability. The extreme parties that control the coalition and the ideological members of the ruling parties see themselves as the guardians of the leaders' trustworthiness. In this way the right toppled Shamir as a punishment for the Madrid Conference and Netanyahu after the Wye Agreement. The left toppled Barak when it pushed him, in the twilight of his tenure, to continue a peace process with Arafat that did not stand a chance instead of forming a national unity government with Ariel Sharon.
Sharon broke the tradition and made few promises that could get him in trouble. He marketed himself as the authorized interpreter of the national interest, whose policy changed in accordance with the circumstances. Sharon ran for election without a platform and thumbed his nose at the Likud rebels who reminded him of his declaration that the fate of Netzarim was like the fate of Tel Aviv. The ideological vacuum is Sharon's real legacy, not the evacuation of the Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip, the building of the fence and the burying of the Oslo process.
There is only one thing that is more foolish than scattering promises: keeping them. Barak was right in his decision to pull out of Lebanon, but did he fully pursue the negotiations with Lebanon or was he simply forced to keep his promise "to leave Lebanon within a year" and so pulled out in a hurry? Was Rabin dragged into Oslo and did he give up on the Syrian track because he wanted to keep the election promise "to establish Palestinian autonomy within six to nine months?" Had they reconsidered their promises, perhaps they could have obtained better results in the negotiations.
Olmert fell into the same trap and was pushed to fight in Lebanon out of the conviction that in this way he would advance convergence in the West Bank. This at least is what emerged from his slip of the tongue in the midst of the war, which has not been adequately investigated by the Winograd Committee. A month before the war broke out, Olmert was presented with the conclusions of an internal commission that examined the idea and recommended not to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank. After an hour-long presentation it was clear to those present that the move did not stand a chance, that it would not release Israel from its responsibility for the territories and that it would only increase the security dangers. Olmert understood that convergence was a lost cause; did he hope that bombing Beirut would help him implement convergence despite everything?
There is no simple solution to the dilemma of public figures' promises. Anyone who wants political stability must aim for ideological ambiguity and see the elections as a contest for choosing a leader, in whose hands the keys to the country will be deposited for a designated period. The slogans and the messages should be seen for what they are: packaging that is thrown into the trash after the elections. Anyone who wants to obligate politicians to a precise platform and to keep promises will bask in clean and trustworthy politics, but at the price of relinquishing political stability and the ability to govern.
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