In Praise of Optimism

Surveys occasionally show that "Israelis are an optimistic nation." Well, what is the alternative?

The transaction in which billionaire Warren Buffett bought Iscar generated reactions in Israel of the kind that Jack Lemmon displayed in "Some Like it Hot." Disguised as an outsized woman, he is energetically courted by a persistent multimillionaire who rebuffs all his reservations ("I'm not a natural blonde," "I can never have children," and finally, "But you don't understand - I'm a MAN!") with the immortal words, "Well, nobody's perfect." At one stage, the Lemmon character starts thinking to himself: How many chances am I going to have to marry a millionaire?

How many chances are we going to have to do business with Buffett? This exultant question transcended the financial implications of the deal and was posed by cabbies and prime ministers alike. Everyone considered himself personally flattered by the very fact that a huge billionaire like Buffett not only bought an Israeli company, but views this country as a legitimate place for investment. Hey, not just legitimate - attractive!

Unsuccessful efforts were made to dissuade him, if only for reasons of full disclosure: "But the country is not a natural blonde!" "But it is threatened by missiles and terrorism!" "But there is Hamas and there is no peace and there are no borders!" "And what about Ahmadinejad? Nasrallah?" But the billionaire just kept smiling: "These days, every place is dangerous," he replied, unperturbed. As though to say, "But no place is perfect."

Paradoxically, however, the joyous event actually underlined the depth of the pessimism and the feeling of marginalization that prevails in Israel. A country whose national anthem is "The Hope" and was established on the basis of a vision which is entirely a "leap of hope" can only stand and wonder: Are we - objectively, empirically - truly part of the real world? Is it the case that a calculating, unsentimental businessman, with a genius for picking investments (and he is not even Jewish!), sees something in us that we have missed? Identifies a potential that we have ceased to believe in? Is it possible that we still have - excuse the term - a future, and did not know it?

Surveys occasionally show that "Israelis are an optimistic nation." Well, what is the alternative? This is not the impression one gets from the behavior of Israel's leadership, political and military alike. Since the Yom Kippur War at least, the country's leaders have been acting on the basis of a deep and panicked pessimism - not with a view to the prospect of exploiting opportunities, but with a view to survival, staving off disasters and minimizing damage. The army chiefs and the cabinet ministers - some of whom even take pride in a traumatic, Holocaust-driven mentality - compete with one another in making prophecies of doom, in outlining grim scenarios domestically and massive threats externally. And if they take - more precisely, are constrained to take, due to an urgent compulsion - some political initiative ("the disengagement"), it is done primarily to ward off even more "dangerous" initiatives. "Hope" and "the future" have become almost terms of anathema. Israel is being managed without a positive blueprint or vision and in fear of taking risks in the face of the unknown. If the country were a business firm and its leaders the board of directors, it would have long since been wiped off the stock exchange.

This is not to minimize the genuine dangers so abundantly lurking for us, including the danger of daydreaming and excess optimism (the "new Middle East"). But we have to take an open-eyed approach. It has already been shown (as in the behavior of the various incarnations of Shaul Mofaz and Amos Gilad in regard to the Palestinians and Iraq) how a negative, pessimistic approach tends to be self-fulfilling.

Not that the opposite has always been proved right in these parts. But without boldness based on a positive approach, and without a measure of optimistic gambling, it is doubtful that one can be successful even in a toilet brush business, let alone a country. One does not need Buffett to know this, but it is good that we got a reminder, especially at the outset of the term of a new government.