The Speech of His Life

So far, 2007 has signaled a dramatic turning point in the hit parade of famous speeches

"I am facing a vitriolic, terrible, unprecedented attack, with false and malicious information being disseminated to every home in Israel and trampling my dignity as a man, as a citizen and as president ... This is execution without trial ... Nobody has looked the facts in the face. You have violated all the rules of ethics and with one goal alone in mind: to slander the president of the state. The decision makers have taken their lead from the brainwashing perpetrated by the obnoxious media. Must I resign because of a media lynching? McCarthyism is alive in Israel! I will fight to my dying breath, even if it means fighting a world war!" - President Moshe Katsav, January 24, 2007

"I am an unpopular prime minister. I know that I am an unpopular prime minister. The polls testify that I am an unpopular prime minister, the newspapers make sure to remind the public that I am unpopular, members of the opposition, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, don't miss an opportunity to remind me that I am an unpopular prime minister. I think they are right. I really am an unpopular prime minister. I wake up every morning to a cauldron of poison. I have to wonder why the voters always believe the worst. What causes people to be like that? I am not willing to behave according to the dictates of popularity. I am not willing to be swayed by hysteria. What do you prefer, a prime minister who deals with the question of whether he is popular, or a prime minister who gets the job done?" - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, March 15, 2007

President Moshe Katsav has made dozens if not hundreds of speeches during his six years in office. They all included positive and unifying messages ("We are an example to many countries in the world"; "Israeli democracy is strong"; "Israeli society maintains its fortitude and its vitality"). Many of them were delivered at important official events and were broadcast live on the three national television channels. Not one of these speeches left its impression on the public's consciousness. And nevertheless, Moshe Katsav will reach the top of the hit parade of famous speechmakers in Israeli history, all thanks to a single speech: the one that has been dubbed his "J'accuse," during which he poured out his bitterness against the law-enforcement system, the media and Israel's other elites.

Ehud Olmert has delivered two major speeches during his tenure as Israel's prime minister. The first, on November 27, 2006, was delivered, not coincidentally, at the tomb of David Ben-Gurion, and was given the epithet of the "Sde Boker speech" by the press. In it the prime minister spelled out the main elements of his daring policy toward the Palestinians: "The international circumstances that have been created, specifically at this time, allow you and us to take a courageous step, which involves the need to make painful compromises and forgo those dreams that were for so many years part of our national ethos, and to open a new chapter offering hope for a better life for all of us ... You will be able to establish an independent and viable Palestinian state with territorial contiguity."

The second speech was delivered from the Knesset dais on August 17, 2006, the fifth day of the Second Lebanon War. That was a speech that was designed to establish the moral underpinnings of the war and to unify the public behind the national mission. It could be called the "No more!" speech.

"There are moments in the life of a nation when it is compelled to look directly into the face of reality and say: No more! And I say to everyone: No more! Only a nation that knows how to defend its freedom is truly deserving of it!"

And nevertheless, if you ask the average citizen which of Olmert's speeches he remembers best, which was the "speech of his life," he will not refer to either of those two speeches. His instinctive reply will be the "I am unpopular" speech. That is the declaration that will entitle Ehud Olmert as well to join the list of famous speechmakers.

The 10 most famous

In order to illustrate the rhetorical revolution that has taken place this year in our political culture, I have assembled a private list of the 10 most famous speeches made by Israeli leaders since the state's establishment. There are some who will certainly differ with me, who will want to make additions or subtractions from my list, but I think that on average, this is a list of 10 that most of the public will agree on.

1. The declaration of the state by David Ben-Gurion, 1948: "Eretz Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people."

2. Menachem Begin's speech against German reparations, 1952: "Don't do it! This is the worst possible abomination!"

3. Moshe Dayan's eulogy over the tomb of Roi Rutenberg, 1956: "Without the steel helmet and the cannon's maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home."

4. Levi Eshkol's "stuttering" radio speech, on the eve of the Six-Day War, in 1967, in which he had difficulty deciphering the text, whispered to his aide, asking for the meaning of a certain word, and established for posterity determined his image as a hesitant prime minister who lacked confidence.

5. The Mt. Scopus speech by Yitzhak Rabin following the Six-Day War victory: "The morality of the Israeli Defense Forces begins with the spirit and ends with the spirit."

6. Menachem Begin's speech at the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, 1979: "No more war, no more bloodshed."

7. Menachem Begin's "riffraff" speech, 1981: "Nobody insulted the dignity of an entire tribe in Israel the way the Alignment did."

8. The "rabbits and pigs" speech of Rabbi Schach, 1990: "On the kibbutzim, they don't know what Yom Kippur is, what Shabbat is, what a mikveh [ritual bath] is. They are breeders of rabbits and pigs."

9. Yitzhak Rabin's peace speech at the signing of the Oslo Accords, at the White House, 1993: "Enough of blood and tears. Enough. We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred toward you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love."

10. Then-Histadrut head Haim Ramon's "whales" speech, 1994: "Like a whale that has lost its sense of direction, you are storming the beach again and again and trying to commit suicide."

If we compare the 10 historic speeches on the list and the two new speeches that now join them, "J'accuse" and "I am Unpopular," the year 2007 signals a dramatic turning point in the status of the "speech of his life" of the Israeli politician. Historians will call the new era the "voluntary demystification of the modern leader"; sociologists will refer to it as "the transition from the collective 'I' to the private 'I'"; psychologists will describe it as "the leadership crisis as a metaphor for the disintegration of parental authority"; while those who study culture and the media will probably speak of "the new leader as a soap-opera hero," or something of that sort.

Everyone will actually be referring to the same thing. The speeches of the past were etched into our collective memory in the context of national events and crises; the speeches of 2007 made waves in contexts of personal events and crises. It is no coincidence that thus far the two great speeches of the year begin with the word "I." The two senior politicians, a president and the prime minister, place themselves - or, to be more precise, their humiliation - at the center.

Personal torment

The general interest, which is the very heart of the speech of the classical leader, has made way for the private interest, the personal injustice they are experiencing. The speaker no longer symbolizes the general public, and begins to represent himself. His speech does not presume to convey a national or universal message, but rather to arouse emotional identification with his personal torment, all according to the rules of television drama. He places his pain within touching distance of his subjects. No wonder the ratings are sky-high.

There is truth to the prevailing tendency to describe the speeches as calculated political manipulation, which implements the "tactic of the victim," but this approach misses the psychological foundation of the drama. More than just an example of sophisticated spin, there is an authentic cry of distress here, and from the person who is supposed to be dealing with the distress of the listeners. In effect the leader shakes off his symbolic role as an authority figure and protective parent, and enters the shoes of the deprived child who cries out for understanding and attention from his parents. Instead of containing his personal crisis and broadcasting a confident facade, he demands that his citizens contain his crisis, understand him, even have pity on him.

This exchange of roles is shocking and sows general confusion. When it happens to a parent in a family, the children usually end up requiring therapy. When it happens to a commander in a military unit, it can cause a crisis of confidence or even mutiny. When it happens to a leader on live TV, it causes the speech to leap to the top of the pops list of sensational speeches.

Katsav and Olmert have set a new standard for anyone trying to join the exclusive club of resounding personal speeches. Knesset Member Esterina Tartman failed in an attempt to edge her way in with a speech she made on February 28 of this year:

"In recent days I have found myself in the center of an orchestrated campaign of incitement, ugly slander and half truths. In spite of that my spirit, which was within reach of death, has not been broken ..."

The dramatic wording met the criteria, but not the speaker. Now we have to wait for the inevitable speech of Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson. He has everything it takes to enter the club, or at least to get on the waiting list.