Who Was Israel's Top Leader? 12 Prime Ministers Ranked From Best to Worst

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Israel's 12 prime ministers (illustration).
Israel's 12 prime ministers.
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv
Netta Ahituv

“In the world of imagination, it is possible to envisage a cognitively and emotionally intelligent chief executive, who happens also to be an inspiring public communicator... and the possessor of exceptional political skill and vision. In the real world, human imperfection is inevitable, but some imperfections are more disabling than others .... Beware the presidential contender who lacks emotional intelligence. In its absence all else may turn to ashes.” 

Fred Greenstein, an emeritus professor of politics at Princeton, wrote this in his book “The Presidential Difference” (third edition, 2009), which surveys the characters of American presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama and seeks to glean the characteristics needed to be a good leader. In his book, Greenstein goes deeper into the popular American habit of ranking presidents. The genesis of this method is usually ascribed to the American historian Arthur Schlesinger. 

In the 1940s, Schlesinger discovered a relatively empty niche in his field, American history, and began to fill it. He asked 75 historians to rank U.S. presidents over the generations based on a number of criteria he had set. The ranking was soon made public, Schlesinger became a popular historian and his ranking method spread. 

Today, rankings of various kinds are often published by academic institutions, think tanks, historians and the media. Most of them are based on the same method of asking historians and political scientists how they rank presidents numerically based on certain criteria. The responses are then averaged out.   

In Israel, the practice of ranking prime ministers hasn’t yet caught on in academic research or in the media, but Israel’s 70th birthday provides an excellent opportunity to do just that with the 12 people who have held the premiership to date. To that end, Haaretz asked historians, political scientists, political commentators, former colleagues of the leaders, and prime ministers’ biographers to rank them based on 10 criteria. The hope was to arrive at a comprehensive picture of their performance and the experts’ evaluation of them. 

Clearly no one is perfect, as Greenstein notes, but the ranking lets us distinguish between leadership that is good and leadership that is not. In the spirit of the identity politics popular in many countries, and so that Haaretz’s ranking would be more objective (of course complete objectivity is impossible and wasn’t the goal), interesting and fruitful, Haaretz approached respondents from different social groups in Israeli society and different political camps.

Despite their different historical and political observations, it was interesting to discover large areas of consensus among the experts regarding the leadership of any given prime minister. One example: Most respondents gave low grades to Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert in the category of honesty and fairness.

Meanwhile, most prime ministers got high marks for their management of Israel’s foreign relations, as opposed to low grades for most on social issues. There was nothing new in the fact that most respondents respected the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, but it was surprising that this widespread approval was also the case for Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, regardless of the politics of the respondents.

Alongside the 10 criteria that were calculated to produce a single average, respondents were also asked to give a grade or verbal description of the amount of luck a particular prime minister enjoyed, as well as the place the respondents believed a given prime minister had today or would have in future history books. 

In these two categories, the prime ministers fell into two groups. There were the obvious ones, like Ben-Gurion, whom everyone agreed was lucky and would always hold a respectable place in history; and, on the other hand, Moshe Sharett, whom all the commentators saw as unlucky and as saddled with a poor historical standing. The other group included prime ministers whose luck and place in history varied, depending on whom one asked. Examples of these are Ehud Barak and Golda Meir, who received very different grades from the different rankers.

Clearly the selection of these criteria and not others is in itself a political act. It’s also clear that timing has an impact both on the selection of criteria and the points awarded by the respondents. It’s possible, for example, that in Ben-Gurion’s time the question about integrity would not even have been asked, because people assume their leaders were not corrupt, and the leaders comported themselves with modesty. The moment the question is asked today about past prime ministers, it becomes an analysis of the past through the prism of the present. Of course, the opposite is also possible. Leaders of the past were more likely to have an ideological vision than those today, so analyzing present leaders through this criteria might be looking at them from an anachronistic perspective. 

And so the present and the inherent subjectivity of the method are present in the ranking. They form the basis of this project, and we ask you to read it in that spirit. Haaretz doesn’t pretend to provide an absolute and official ranking, but rather one that represents the way Israel’s leaders are seen on the eve of the country’s 70th birthday.

Too early to tell

The years have softened the image of Israel’s leaders — the more recent the prime minister, the lower his or her grade | Aluf Benn

Toward the end of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s time in office, I asked him what he had learned over the years. “That nothing changes, except the past,” he answered.

Sharon meant his reply as a barb at the journalists who cursed him over the first Lebanon war and praised him for leaving Gaza. But his reply is true in any discussion on leaders and leadership: The passing of time has the greatest impact on what we think about the decisions and performance of prime ministers.

This is easy to see in Haaretz’s ranking of prime ministers. Like the way waves can smooth a piece of glass over a number of years, the passage of time has softened the image of Israel’s leaders. Their political intrigues are forgotten, their missteps and flip-flopping disappear; only the important decisions remain in the collective memory, forming the basis for judgment. 

The closer the leaders are to our time, the lower their grades. It’s easy to analyze the actions and failures of David Ben-Gurion, but Benjamin Netanyahu still sets us off with his latest tweet. Moshe Sharett and Levi Eshkol, who weren’t popular when they were in office, are enjoying late-blooming love, and Ehud Olmert is remembered in a prison uniform.

Israel’s prime ministers can be divided into two groups: the radicals, who wanted to change reality with their decisions, and the conservatives, who wanted to maintain the status quo and went with the flow. To the first group belong Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin in his second term, Shimon Peres, Netanyahu in his first term, Barak, Sharon in his second term and Olmert. 

The first men on the preceding were better able to implement their will, but the intentions were similar. Today it seems difficult to effect revolutionary change in the country and its foreign relations, as did Begin, who turned over almost every stone regarding peace, settlements, war, the economy and relations with the ultra-Orthodox community. None of his successors, meanwhile, ever tried to reboot Israel. In contrast, Barak and Olmert, who sought to advance daring peace moves, failed utterly and are remembered as losers.

In the conservative group we have Sharett, Eshkol, Golda Meir, Rabin in his first term and Netanyahu since his return to power in 2009. These leaders initiated little and sometimes acted in response to pressure. But in retrospect, the decisions they made are no less important and sometimes even more important than the daring operations of their colleagues in the radical group.

First and foremost is Eshkol’s decision not to withdraw from the territories occupied in the Six-Day War, and to establish settlements there. Only 10 years earlier, Ben-Gurion had withdrawn from Sinai under pressure from the world powers. Eshkol decided that this wouldn’t be the case on his watch, and the occupation received American backing, to a great extent thanks to the relationship Eshkol had developed in the years before the war with Lyndon Johnson.

There was no far-reaching vision here, no long-term planning or election promises to the public. It was simply an attempt to take advantage of the moment, which was marked by the worsening Cold War and America’s entanglement in Vietnam. But Eshkol’s decision has since dictated history more than anything else.

And the results? Well, to borrow from the cliché (inaccurately) attributed to Chinese leader Zhou Enlai when asked about the effects of the French Revolution, which had taken place nearly two centuries earlier, it’s “too early to tell.

The experts who ranked the prime ministers:

Dr. Abed L. Azab Chemist, social activist, Haaretz commentator; born and lives in village of Aara.

Dr. Anat Kidron Researcher and lecturer in the Department of Israel Studies, University of Haifa.

Prof. Anita Shapira Historian of the Jewish people, awarded the Israel Prize for study of the history of the Jewish people, emeritus professor at Tel Aviv University; author of “Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel” and “Yigal Allon, Native Son.”

Dr. Avi Picard Historian, teaches in the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology Department, Bar-Ilan University; lives in Yeruham.

Dr. Avi Shilon Historian at the Ben-Gurion Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva; author of “Menachem Begin: A Life” and “Ben-Gurion: His Later Years in the Political Wilderness.”

Efraim Halevy Former director of Mossad and head of the National Security Council, served as the Israeli ambassador to the European Union and as head of the Center for Strategic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, current chairman of the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History.

Gadi Baltiansky Director general of the Geneva Initiative, lecturer in public diplomacy, served as media adviser for Ehud Barak, was a member of the peace negotiations team.

Haim Yavin Journalist and Israel Prize laureate for media, former anchor of the major daily newscast on Channel 1 (Israel Broadcasting Corporation), producer and director of dozens of documentaries, former chief editor of the Mabat newscast, news director and director of Israel Television.

Prof. Israel Bartal Historian, emeritus professor in the Department of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. 

Israel Cohen Journalist, senior commentator on the Kikar Hashabbat website.

Israel Harel Founder of the Yesha Council of settlements, the Institute of Zionist Strategy and the journal “Nekuda,” Haaretz columnist for the past 25 years.

Prof. Motti Golani Researcher of the British Mandate period in Palestine, chair of the Department of Jewish History, Tel Aviv University; his biography of Chaim Weizmann, co-authored with Jehuda Reinharz, is forthcoming.

Ronit Vardi Biographer and political journalist at Liberal magazine; author of “Bibi: Who Are You, Mr. Prime Minister?”

Shlomo Nakdimon Journalist and political commentator, researcher of the history of the Yishuv (pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine) and the state, was Menachem Begin’s media adviser during the peace talks with Egypt; author of “Begin,” “Altalena,” “First Strike,” “Low Probability” and “Toward Zero Hour,” books which examined the performance of Prime Ministers Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Begin and Meir in key episodes of Israel’s history.

Prof. Yossi Goldstein Teaches history at Ariel University, author of dozens of books, including biographies of four prime ministers: David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.

Civil Service official Served in a senior position with a number of prime ministers, wishes to remain anonymous.

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