To understand the peculiar tragedy, not to say curse, that has haunted Israeli politics - and especially the position of the prime minister - for a generation, one need only quote a member of Ehud Olmert's close circle, who lamented this week: "It's a shame for him to have to leave this way, rather than against the background of some achievement - a peace agreement with Syria, an arrangement with the Palestinians, or at least bringing the abducted soldiers home."
Here, in a nutshell, is the whole story of Israel's leadership in recent decades: The permanent problems - strategic threats, the Palestinians, international isolation, the relationship between religion and state - stay in the background like an unchanging theatrical set. At the front of the stage, meanwhile, unfolds a frenzied drama in which half a dozen actors prance around the throne. Should one be so lucky as to sit, the battle for inheritance immediately begins, with all the attendant undermining, the rummaging through cans of worms, and the leader's own struggle to tighten his grasp on the reins, a struggle that later becomes a rearguard action for survival.
Indeed, experience shows that even when the governmental horizon seems clear, the end of one's term in office almost always comes up suddenly: Only two or three years ago, those in Olmert's disappearing "circle" were still speaking of his survival "until 2010 at least"; a half-minute before the stroke hit Ariel Sharon, he and his court still seemed as eternal and steady as the Rock of Gibraltar; a day before the Yom Kippur War, Golda Meir's reign appeared so lengthy, stable and enduring that Yitzhak Ben-Aharon referred to it as "the Victorian period"; and one need not even mention the terms of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, new dawns that faded like the flash of a comet.
No wonder, then, that Israeli prime ministers have always left chaos and mayhem in their wake, like a room after a hasty departure: unfulfilled agendas, half-baked plans, broken promises.
If this is a decree of fate, the reason is not a faulty mezuzah or some Pharaoh's curse, but a behavioral pattern. Since Israel's commitment to high-quality service leaves something to be desired, among both minor bureaucrats and prime ministers, the latter conceive of their election as if they had won the lottery jackpot, not as a heavy burden subject to time limitations.
Thus, in arrogance and obliviousness to the innate transience of their office, they begin without delay to waste time: They spend the first year striving to entrench themselves politically (including, as a basic tenet of wisdom, some show of force, military or otherwise, to "reinforce their standing," a gesture that ultimately boomerangs). Their ends are also uniform: Almost every prime minister has concluded his term wriggling in the throes of some desperate peace initiative, whether in order to save himself by rendering himself immune, or in a wish to leave, after all, some positive mark on the tablets of history (the exception was Menachem Begin, who followed the opposite route, with a no less dismal ending).
The drama of Olmert's declining rule seems exaggerated because of his personality, but it is essentially the same as that of his predecessors. "We're dressing up, innkeeper, for a festive meeting / With the end that awaits, unmoving," Hanna Meron sang in Nathan Alterman's play "Ghosts' Inn"; and prime ministers, like all people, are transitory innkeepers of sorts.
Had they been aware all along that history would judge them by the quality of their product and not by the length of their tenure, they certainly would not have squandered their days and our time on the systematic postponement of vital national moves, for the sole purpose of surviving and drawing out their time in office. Instead, they would have seen every day and every moment as a precious, irretrievable opportunity: to move things along, to keep promises, to fulfill hopes.
Let this be a lesson to our future prime ministers: In the end, you will fall, no matter what. If not because of our own extremists, then because of theirs. If not due to your own personality, then due to the personalities of others. But if this is the case, would it not be better to begin with what really matters (for example, peace) instead of trying to end with it? In short, carpe diem, seize the day. Otherwise, it will seize you, and you know exactly where.
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