In the era of spin only rarely do we have a chance to hear some profound inner truth that erupts spontaneously from the calculated behavior of politicians and public figures. We received two such opportunities recently, almost by accident. The first happened during Defense Minister Ehud Barak's visit to Cairo, at his chance meeting with the Egyptian soccer team. In his desire to demonstrate chumminess and goodwill, the Israeli minister had some brilliant advice: "Be aggressive!" His words of encouragement were accompanied by a hand motion that evoked the way he pushed Yasser Arafat through the door at Camp David, or grabbed the microphone at the Labor central committee. Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate that this personal motto, which by dint of Barak's status (and our history of innumerable wars and campaigns) also constitutes a kind of national motto.
Another recent example - this time a personal motto that's being enthusiastically pushed as a national slogan - was provided by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting with EU ambassadors. In a kind of variation on "if they give, they'll get," he declared that "Israelis are not willing to be suckers." This may be Netanyahu's most consistent statement. (Already in 1998, during his previous term as prime minister, the former furniture salesman explained to the students at a school in Ma'aleh Adumim that "we are not suckers. We don't give without getting.")
The conclusion is that this is a kind of personal obsession, even more consistent and powerful than the belief in Greater Israel. And not only toward the Palestinians. It's not clear to what extent this idee fixe reflects the Israelis as a whole, but it can probably explain to some degree the riddle of Netanyahu's behavior - the man who ironically "ends up a sucker" in almost every interaction, usually as a result of his great fear of being seen as one.
But Netanyahu and Barak, who now hold our fate in their hands, would not have achieved such positions of power for a second time if they did not, despite everything, represent at least two outstanding traits of Israeliness: aggressiveness and paranoia. This is a nice pair of traits, and even Mother Teresa might have acquired them had she been fated to live in our region with neighbors like ours. In any case, they reflect two sides of the same coin - the fear of being considered weak and, the only thing that's worse, being considered naive.
The historic joke is that of all people, two quintessential representatives of these extremist traits, Barak and Netanyahu, are now fated to confront constraints that put to the supreme test their longstanding personal characteristics. The brutal and opinionated Barak, with his basic English, is sent as a diplomat and PR man to minimize the damage caused by our tough and belligerent image. Meanwhile, Netanyahu's spokespeople try to explain at a hastily called press conference - which was convened with typical hysteria immediately after Kadima's briefing - why their boss is nobody's sucker, not even of Likud MK Miri Regev and opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
At some point, each of Israel's leaders is forced to deal not only with his long-held beliefs, but with his temperament and character traits as well. Fortunately for us, their character traits have largely brought destruction on themselves. The country survived. But what will emerge from the Barak-Netanyahu compound during the second chance handed to these two unstable, egocentric and suspicious people? Only the god of historical irony knows, especially when the current circumstances - in the spirit of U.S. President Barack Obama's leadership - require precisely the trait both of them lack: good faith.
When the only expectation in Israel is that "Obama will wise up from his naivete," it is doubtful whether we will see any metamorphosis in our leadership. It is more likely that we will return to the usual default option, in which military aggressiveness and diplomatic suckerhood go hand in hand in perfect harmony.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now