What comes next?
Like it or not, now is the time to think seriously about who is the most suitable prime minister for Israel 2006. Four experts in political science and the humanities present their very different viewpoints
So what have we had during the past decade? Two young prime ministers (Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak) of the third generation, the one that succeeded the founders' generation and the generation of 1948. As sophisticated as G3 cellular phones, they captured the political system for a while, and left it borne on waves of bitterness and hatred. After them, not in natural chronological order, came Ariel Sharon, a leader who emerged from the 1948 generation, reached the premiership in a cloud of suspicion and hatred and who is leaving office embraced with love and a sense of great loss. The world stands amazed at this, but the Polish journalists who came here last week found it easier to understand; it reminded them of the reaction to the deterioration in the condition of their pope.
Within the confusion in the political system, in which everything is once again open prior to the upcoming elections, only two things are certain: Israel will have a new prime minister, and it will not be Sharon. Nor like Sharon. That era is over, for better and for worse. It was so convenient to stick with Sharon, even for his opponents. To hold him responsible, to lay the blame on him. Mainly, he relieved citizens of the need to think and to make difficult decisions that the majority knows must be taken, but whose consequences it is unwilling to bear. It was also convenient to deliberate as to which of his rivals to choose, based on the assumption that Sharon would in any case be the prime minister. He was the compass on which the decisions were based.
Now we have to begin to think differently, to think seriously about the question of who is the most suitable prime minister for Israel 2006. In the process of the personalization of the Israeli political system, which reached its peak with Sharon - who was not even directly elected - this question overshadows even those concerning "the path." As far as the path is concerned, there are already signs the upcoming election campaign will resemble a seance, a struggle between "the successors of Sharon" and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, who is already being presented by his associates as "Rabin's successor," in terms of his social policy.
And the question still remains as to what type of leader is right for Israeli society at this time. Are we looking for a "strong leader"? Do we really want a "father figure"? It turns out that is not quite the case. Perhaps because there is no such person available, perhaps because society as a whole is now undergoing an accelerated maturation process. Even "love" is being sidelined in discussions of this desired model with experts on political science and the humanities. It looks as though the next "bionic" prime minister is composed mainly of a collection of lessons from past experience and a sober analysis of the future.
No father figure
"Israel needs a new architect as a leader, to complete the work of the founding fathers who left behind a country without borders," says Sami Smooha, a professor of sociology at the University of Haifa. "The great failure of the founders' generation is that it did not complete the design."
Is Israel in need of another father figure for that purpose?
"That's a delicate point," says Smooha. "What is desirable may be a father figure, in the sense of the founders' generation. But that generation is gone. Someone from the generation of the sons cannot become a father figure. Even Sharon was not a father figure when he began his term, but over the years he turned himself into a myth of a father figure.
"That can't happen to Peretz, to Bibi [Netanyahu] or to [Ehud] Olmert. Whoever succeeds Sharon will have to use different means to enlist support for this reshaping. The basis of the reshaping is the delineation of the permanent borders, which is the conclusion of the War of Independence. That is what Sharon began to do with aggression and brutality, and it looks as though that is what Olmert is going to do. Peretz's social agenda is not exactly 'redesigning.' He in effect a reactionary. The fundamental component of Israeli society is still the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
According to Smooha, the task of the future prime minister in delineating Israel's permanent borders need not be particularly difficult. In his estimate, most of Israeli society tends in this direction in any case, and therefore the reshaping will be brought about by reinforcing pragmatism rather than by reinforcing ideologies. But pragmatism alone is not sufficient. The future leader must radiate a clear sense of being motivated by "particularistic Jewish considerations" rather than by "universal ethical" ones.
"It is more important now than ever," maintains Smooha. "The left in Israel is always suspected of having considerations that are not purely Jewish. Even though it is now common to speak of the increasing centrism of the public, most of the public in Israel is still on the right, whose considerations are primarily Jewish. In this sense, a person whose viewpoint is basically right-wing will find it easier to achieve a broader consensus."
And what about a "strong leader"?
"According to all the studies, only a minority wants a strong leader in the non-democratic sense of the word," replies Smooha. "In the third generation there are no strong leaders in any case. Replace the concept of a 'strong leader' with a 'strong coalition,' and the public will accept it. Israel is a democracy on a low but stable level, which will be satisfied with a broad and stable coalition."
No love for Sharon
Dr. Alec Epstein, a sociologist and social scientist from the Open University who came to Israel with the last wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, disagrees with most of the basic assumptions of the present discourse regarding Sharon's successor. On the eve of the founding of the Kadima party, he published an article in the Russian- language newspaper Vesty, predicting Sharon was about to lose the elections.
"There is no love for Sharon, there is dependence," he claims. "He forced on everyone an idea he himself invented, and the public responded with 'Let's trust you, and see where that leads, with your security and political experience.'" Epstein also thinks such a public reaction is very much suited to the Israeli culture of "Trust me." He claims the public love affair with Sharon is an illusion, fueled by the media in recent days. "Do you think the media would have reacted with the same hysteria had exactly the same thing happened to Bibi during his term as prime minister?" he asks rhetorically.
On the basis of his major criticism of Sharon's undemocratic behavior, he wants the future leader to remedy the situation. "What is needed now is a prime minister who will heal the parliamentary system and rehabilitate democracy. We need a leader who will not work in a closed circle of 'the friends of Omri [Sharon].' But mainly, we need a leader who will tell us the truth. Someone who won't promise to bring peace and security, because it is not in his power."
A kind of Churchill who promised his nation "blood, sweat and tears"?
"Something like that," replies Epstein. "Let him say openly that peace and security are unattainable, and not dependent on us." However, he thinks Israel is in need of a leader who will say the time has come to determine the permanent borders of the State of Israel, even though that will not bring peace and security. "I feel bad about traveling every day from my home in Ma'aleh Adumim, when I don't know to which country the highway belongs," he says. "On the other hand, I'm tired of logging on to the official site of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and reading there that the exit from Gaza is a return to the peace process. I think we need a prime minister who will give us a precise picture of what he wants to do, without linking it to the peace process."
Epstein says there are significant differences between what the public as a whole wants and what the Russian community wants. "The big difference is in the greater longing of Russians for a 'strong leader' and in their outspoken disdain for democratic processes," he says, pointing out two prominent differences. "But everyone is looking for a leader who is willing to assume responsibility. The secret of Sharon's strength was that he demonstrated determination, and it is much less important to us what he was determined about. The trouble with Bibi is that in the morning he reads surveys, and in the afternoon he formulates policy. That's why he is unsuitable, but he will be the prime minister."
Game between nation and leader
In total contrast to Epstein, Dr. Assaf Meidani, an expert on public administration and law at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, really wants a prime minister who is vague. "Israel needs a leader who is vague, because we ourselves do not know clearly what we want," he says. "We prefer to postpone the solutions to other times. There is no basis to the statements that the nation wants a leader who will tell it the whole truth. Are you kidding? The leader tells the public what the public already thinks anyway. It's a kind of game between the nation and the leader. Therefore, the next prime minister has to be a leader who will take the initiative and will know how to lead and to navigate, but who will continue to be vague."
Meidani also derives this analysis from the assumption that the political culture in Israel is not a participatory culture, it does not demand to intervene in decision-making processes and does not react strongly to actions it considers unethical. Epstein's truth-telling leader is not Meidani's idea of the right leader. "Rabin decided to navigate, but didn't say how," says Meidani. "There's a difference between a sweeping general statement and a detailed explanation of the plan. This desire for a leader who will take overall responsibility but will not share with us the details about which we have yet to formulate an opinion emerges from the research as well."
To the question as to whether he thinks Israel actually wants a leader who will deceive it to some extent, Meidani replies honestly: "As a strategist, I can dodge the question and say that I am presenting you with a platform that emerges from the research. As a citizen, I choose not to define this as deception, but as a request that he not spell things out at the present time."
Meidani also mentions the importance of a sense of humor in a future leader. "A leader's sense of humor maintains a sense of proportion, there is something soothing about it. An overly serious leader is not good for Israel."
Unfeeling and inconsiderate
"What is needed now, unfortunately, is someone overly self-confident," says Prof. Shlomo Zand, a historian from Tel Aviv University. "Sharon is not brilliant and not especially smart, but one of his exalted and embarrassing traits is too much self-confidence, which served him well in battles, in the invasion of Lebanon and at the height of his courage, in the withdrawal from Gaza.
"I say this as a historian, because as a citizen I don't like my own answer. Kadima's troika, consisting of Olmert, [Tzipi] Livni and [Shimon] Peres, has an understanding of the situation, but they don't have this self-confidence. Sharon is unfeeling and inconsiderate. In the future, too, we need a leader who is inconsiderate, who doesn't check surveys every day. As a historian I know that in the modern era only strong leaders can bring about compromise."
Zand says that as a leftist he would have liked to say a good leader for Israeli society is a person who will achieve the most in negotiations with the Palestinians, and to mention the name of Yossi Beilin, but in his estimate, Beilin lacks all the virtues of a leader in a time of crisis. "Only a leader who radiates power can conduct the politics of weakness," he says. "What Sharon succeeded in doing was to consolidate all the confused desires of the left."
Zand considers the collective love affair with Sharon very problematic. "We are in fact looking for an object of love in a father and a daring hero," he says. "For the large Israeli center, that solved all the problems. It didn't have to think. Now there is no figure on the horizon who can fulfill this role, a situation that forces us into immediate maturity. But I'm afraid that there are children who age before they grow up, and that worries me a great deal in Israeli society."
Zand also believes that Israel is not yet ready for a civilian leader. "I'm extremely hesitant about answering this question, because I really want to be surprised," he admits. "Sharon's charisma is related to his expertise in security, and I would really like someone who is charismatic without the security dimension. I really want to see civilian charisma here, a la Mitterand. There were signs this was happening when Peretz erupted into the arena, but it dissolved quickly.
"In no Western democracy have great generals ruled for long periods during times of peace, but that is happening in our swamp, which doesn't necessarily want a general, but wants to be led. Since Golda we have not had a civilian leader, and Olmert could be the first. After great leaders, leaders that suit the dimensions of the people are born. After Roosevelt came Truman, after Kennedy came Johnson. One doesn't replace one lover with another."
The term "legacy," which has been heard so much recently, really makes Zand laugh. "There is no Sharon legacy, such as there is no Rabin legacy. Most of the legacies are traditions that are constructed after the fact. Even the Western Wall has only existed as a canonical place for exactly 821 years."