Yitzhak Shamir's management skills as prime minister were exemplary. His routine was regular and his office staff worked harmoniously. He largely avoided media attention. His policies were consistent and his message was simple and clear. His levelheadedness, self-confidence and decisiveness were forged in the pre-state underground and the Mossad espionage agency. It was difficult to frighten him or make him yield. "Shamir was made of granite," said Ehud Barak, who served under him as army chief of staff.
Yitzhak Rabin, who replaced Shamir as prime minister, suffered from management problems. His aides venerated him, but differed with him on policy and bickered among themselves in the media. Rabin hesitated before making decisions, and then continued to deliberate afterward, which sometimes led him to change his mind. And his slips of the tongue gave journalists an endless supply of headlines.
Yet Shamir's greatest accomplishment was remaining in office. He served as prime minister longer than any premier in Israel's history except David Ben-Gurion. But history has forgotten him. He is only rarely mentioned in public discourse, usually as an example of a conservative rejectionist who opposed all change, and whose sole aim was to preserve the Greater Land of Israel.
Rabin, by contrast, was considered a giant of a leader and a distinguished statesman, because he brought about change in every field with which he dealt: the peace process, foreign policy, the paving of highways and education reform. He was murdered before he finished the job, but the Israel he left behind was different from the one he inherited.
The historical lesson is clear. Prime ministers' management skills occupy the attention of politicians and journalists, but their importance is negligible. Leaders are judged by the decisions they make and the results of those decisions, not on how they manage their staff or their relationships with the media.
The common argument that someone who has difficulties managing an office cannot manage a country is unsupportable. The prime minister's bureau during Ehud Olmert's tenure could have won an international management prize, thanks to his warm relations with world leaders, his openness to the media and his aides' loyalty to their boss - which, according to the State Prosecutor's Office, led a few of them to break the law for him. But none of this improved Olmert's flawed handling of the Second Lebanon War, or of the peace process, which bore no fruit. History will record his term as prime minister as a missed opportunity, not as a period of decision and change.
Benjamin Netanyahu's management problems stem from his extreme suspiciousness, which is reflected in the compartmentalization of his staff and his feeling that the media is persecuting him. Other politicians, too, are constantly busy battling real or imagined adversaries, and they, too, are driven crazy by what is written about them, but they know how to hide their fears and suspicions better than Netanyahu does.
Netanyahu's centralized grip on power and the compartmentalization of his bureau cause unease, behind-the-scenes intrigue and leaks. And his defensiveness with respect to the media leads him to react in ill-considered ways to media coverage that upsets him. Both traits peaked in the embarrassing fiasco of his trip to Russia - his failed attempts to hide it, and then to present it as some kind of James Bond operation.
The truth is that the prime minister's bureau functions much better now than it did during Netanyahu's first term as premier. There are no frantic changes of key staff. The messages conveyed are consistent, and Netanyahu is protected from the overexposure and slips of the tongue that created complications in the past. The media is more forgiving of the prime minister and his family, and his policies enjoy public support. But that is not enough. Once every few weeks, Netanyahu becomes embroiled in a new scandal that immediately reminds people of the "Old Bibi" and raises the question of whether he has really changed.
Netanyahu contends that the mainstream media is preoccupied with trivialities and ignores his accomplishments, and he thinks the solution lies in pluralism, as reflected by the newspaper that supports him, Yisrael Hayom. But he is mistaken. The problem is not a dearth of opinions, but of achievements. When policy stagnates, people turn their attention to who was invited to dinner and who knew about the secret trip. When the prime minister acts like a leader and makes historic decisions, inter-office quarrels are no longer of interest.
That is what happened to Ariel Sharon when he decided to withdraw from Gaza, and that is also what will happen to Netanyahu if he shows political courage and pursues a breakthrough in the peace process. Otherwise, he will be remembered by history as a fossil who merely marked time in office, like Yitzhak Shamir.
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