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It is said that one of David Ben-Gurion's strange habits was to surprise a very senior officer or commander who had entered his room for consultation - sometimes even the chief of staff himself - by asking him wonderingly: "What are you doing here?!" That same senior officer could do nothing but scratch his pate and wonder if he was witness to a demonstration of senility or whether he had suddenly lost status in the eyes of the prime minister. In any case, it was a certain lesson in humility.

This week, at a time when that same Ben-Gurion-style question has become almost a collective one, at least according to public opinion surveys, Chief of Staff Dan Halutz chose to reply to it with typical self-confidence: "Some people cope by making statements, I cope by doing. I'm doing what I'm doing." What exactly is he "doing"? He wasn't asked about that and did not feel a need to reply because in Israel, in the public and especially in the military sphere, it's not really important what exactly they are "doing": The main thing is to do it assertively and to broadcast self-confidence.

This trait of broadcasting self-confidence at any price and under any circumstances, perhaps as a reaction to 2,000 years of exile, is considered in Israel to be the most admirable trait of all, and occasionally it has been a decisive factor in the promotion or appointment of leaders and generals. From this point of view, Halutz, who whether justifiably or not is regarded as the epitome of assertiveness, if not of arrogance, at the moment looks like the latest of the meteors that have streaked across our skies with the same drama with which they burned out: From Moshe Dayan and Yigael Yadin to Ehud Barak; not to mention their likes in the intermediate ranks, "brilliant" and "promising" major generals and brigadier generals, or highly praised academic geniuses, to which we can apply the American saying: "The higher they climb, the harder they fall."

Nevertheless, in spite of all the failures and burns left by all the various talented and charismatic people, the Israeli public continues to worship and long for the next assertive figure, the one who "does what he/she does" with total self-confidence, even at the cost of tremendous damage (a recent example is former prime minister Ariel Sharon). This Israeli public at the same time disdains those same politicians or officers who display the most detested traits in our country: hesitancy, skepticism, self-criticism, second thoughts, and even humility, God help us.

In "living room conversations," which due to the country's nature have recently become "barracks conversations," the key word today is "gap": The inexplicable gap between the "promising" personality of these brilliant division commanders and intelligent lieutenant generals with their "noses in the air" and their lofty talk, scientific analyses and dizzying plans on the one hand, and the pathetic "test of results" of their performance on the ground. Is it a gap between their personal qualities and the idiocy of all the systems surrounding them? Or perhaps the seeds of failure can be found in them, in that very same arrogant assertiveness and self-satisfaction that is so admired?

A certain reinforcement of this last assumption can be found in the surprising results of a new American study, based on the findings of an international mathematics assessment exam, which discovered that in a comparison among countries, there is an inverse ratio (!) between the achievements of students and their self-esteem. So for example, in the top places in the international study are Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan, but only about 5 percent of their students agreed with the statement that they are successful at mathematics. Israeli students, on the other hand, reached 19th place in the achievement index out of the 45 countries that participated in the exam; but in the self-esteem index, they were ranked first place in the world!

From an analysis of the answers to several questions (such as "I learn math quickly," or "Math is one of my strong subjects"), it turned out that the percentage of Israeli students who agree with these statements was almost double the international average. (This is a regional phenomenon: Alongside Israel at the top of the list of countries whose students are satisfied with themselves without any relation to their real achievements are Jordan and Egypt.)

We should not hasten to draw far-reaching conclusions from this. However, we should pay attention to the words of a specialist in education, who explained the gap between the students' boastfulness and their achievements simply by the fact that they are not confronted with high demands.

And this may also be the explanation for the inverse ratio between the real achievements of our commanders and leaders on the one hand and their arrogance, their boastfulness and their self-satisfaction on the other: It's not because too much is expected of them, but because too little is demanded of them. Perhaps everything would look different if, in the first place, we had demanded a little less self-confidence and a little more security of them.