They Can't Handle the Truth: Why Israel Can't Get Over Its Ongoing Leadership Crisis

Today's candidates are sweeping the major issues under the rug and avoiding giving answers. A candidate who dared say something meaningful could rake in a lot of votes.

Friends of former Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin say he is so disappointed with the quality of political leadership that he is expecting a protest vote of blank ballots. I gave a book I published in 2007, "Imagined Peace, Discourse of War," the subtitle "The failure of leadership, politics and democracy in Israel." I focused on a continuing failure, since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which reached its peak in the Second Lebanon War.

However, in comparison to the leadership failure of tough-on-Hamas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and tough-on-tycoons Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich, the mainstream duo of the Second Lebanon War, Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni and former Labor MK Amir Peretz who has joined her, looks like an island of sanity and national responsibility.

Why did Rabin's assassination leave a leadership vacuum? Because it happened at the start of a move that was cut off in its infancy and left behind it hatred, fear and political and diplomatic chaos from which no one knows how to emerge. It is the role of a leader to define the crisis in words and propose to the public a way out of it. When he convinces the public, he becomes a leader; it is the public's following of him that makes him a leader.

Fortunately, Netanyahu is strong only in words and at the crucial moments he folds. His years as prime minister have been the calmest since Rabin was murdered. Think about the years of the second intifada during the terms of Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, and about the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead during the term of the Kadima/Labor government. Under Netanyahu, there was the Western Wall tunnel incident at the start of his first term in 1996, and Operation Pillar of Defense just recently, and that's it. In effect, since the Oslo process was derailed after the Rabin assassination, there has been a topsy-turvy political situation: Anyone who wants quiet should trust Netanyahu and anyone who wants violent operations, especially when the Palestinians evince opposition to our military government, should vote for the center-left. In any case there's no possibility of even dreaming about peace. From the reinforced rooms in the south, the talk about a diplomatic process and a two-state solution seems just as hallucinatory as "Bibi is tough on Hamas."

In the post-assassination era, in which the rational vote is for someone who is opposed to what you think and want, the tendency of the politicians is not to talk about the complex reality but rather to ignore it in order to get elected. They appeal to the emotions of fear and the sense of belonging to a community apart. They appeal to fear by reviling the other leader and his community, and to community affiliation by stressing the values of "people like us."

Thus, the public opinion polls on voters' intentions in the coming election include a varying dosage of love and hatred. Hatred - with a capital H - of the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, the right, the left, the Arabs, the Tel Aviv Ashkenazim - it's a matter of tell me who you hate and I'll tell you for whom you'll vote. The ultra-Orthodox, the national religious, the Russian speakers and the strictly secular are fortunate in that they have a community. It is the misfortune of Israeli politics that the nation is broken up into communities that live apart, which makes possible a tribal politics of hatred and fear and prevents the development of a body politic that gives rise to leaders from within.

Palestinian elephant in room

During the protest of summer 2011 there was a desire to transform the sectarian communities into a nation, to create an inclusive Israeliness around the solidarity and values of social justice. However, the protest against Netanyahu's economic policy and in favor of equality among Israelis did not succeed in giving rise to a political leadership because it could not deal with the lack of justice and absence of equality between Israelis and Palestinians.

Most of Israel's citizens are worried: How can we extricate ourselves from this worsening tangle with the Palestinians at a time when they are divided and competing among themselves? And also, of course, what will happen with earning a living, the pension and the prices of housing, health and education? No candidate is dealing in depth with the questions, both large and small, and even less with the connections among them. Everyone finds a way to evade. Netanyahu in speeches meant to distract the public's attention, Yacimovich with a one-dimensional agenda. Livni and Peretz, who have more systematic ideologies, are concealing the disagreements between them, both on diplomatic questions and on social and economic issues.

In this election it looks like the candidates believe that the winner will be whoever conceals his shortcomings from the public most effectively. The bright spot is that large sections of the public are disappointed, don't believe, and are even considering not casting a vote. A candidate who dares to say something meaningful and to the point could sweep up a lot of ballots.

One of the leadership tests Rabin faced on the eve of the 1992 election came in the wake of the fatal stabbing by a Palestinian of 15-year-old Helena Rapp in Bat Yam. Angry residents demonstrated every day against the incumbent Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Rabin decided to go to Bat Yam and promise the inhabitants "to take Gaza out of Bat Yam." The courage to stand before angry citizens, to state simply the solution he was proposing for their distress and to position his way to election - this is the leadership that was and is no more.

In the current chaos - with the Palestinian Liberation Organization ruling in Ramallah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces surrounding them and Palestinian-made missiles landing near Tel Aviv - if we want this election to be truly democratic, with a choice between alternatives, the candidates have to start speaking to the point. The state and democracy are dear to the citizens, in every sense, and we don't want to deposit them in the hands of spineless people without courage and vision.

The writer is a researcher and lecturer on political sociology.