Life Imitating Reality

If the next Israeli government is headed by a regular guy or gal who stays on the bucking horse in the governmental rodeo for more than a fraction of a second, this in itself will be a victory.

Though the race for prime minister is not a reality show like "Survivor" or "The Amazing Race," as Defense Minister Ehud Barak has rightly commented, the distance is not great: In both cases the contenders vie for television ratings, bad-mouthing their opponents behind their backs and trying to appear perfect and cool.

And if at first we were astonished at the sight of a contender whose hair turned blue overnight, or at the sight of a candidate who kept his promise "I have changed" by removing a mole from his face, then today we are not amazed that a prime minister's legacy consists mainly of surgery to lift his eyelids; we are not amazed by a candidate who has improved her front teeth (as reported in the gossip columns) and has not stopped laughing and smiling since, even in the face of the Iranian threat.

If nevertheless there is a difference between the participants in reality shows and the contenders to lead the State of Israel, it shows up in that the politicians look a lot more nonchalant than their television equivalents. It looks as though they aren't internalizing that they have made it to the semifinals. And when they rise to speak their piece at their "campaign launch," they sound less like leaders hewing out a vision from their hearts and more like pupils reciting an essay on the topic "What are the qualities required of an Israeli prime minister and how many of them do I have, at least according to my cronies."

When they talk about the need for "judgment," "experience," "security background" and "integrity," they sound like people checking off questions at an employment bureau and not people burning with a sense of historical mission, for which they will be prepared to lay themselves on the fence.

Even exceptions among them - Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu an Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who are obsessive in their pursuit of the job - look as though they are fueled by the fire of competition and the flame of bruised ego more than any burning vision of the future. It is a fact that even they make no pretense of laying out any sort of program.

It appears that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's statement that "a prime minister doesn't need an agenda," which at first sounded baffling, is now being adopted heartily by all the candidates. None of them is able to offer anything apart from this: reasonable maintenance and preparation for disaster. Even if you say that in today's unstable era no one expects a prime minister to be more qualified than a candidate to head the Airports Authority, it would be nice if his resume were accompanied by that something that is elusive and undefined but very palpable when it exists: that thing called "nobility of mind."

This characteristic is so elusive that it is notable mainly in its absence; for example, not taking the opportunity to make peace with Syria for fear that "you will be considered a sucker" (according to the testimony of former United States ambassador Martin Indyk, on Barak), or for fear of "leaks." On the absence of nobility of mind in other Israeli prime ministers there is no need for Indyk's testimony: There has been enough over the past few decades, during which it has not been clear if the crisis situation has given rise to impetuous, short-sighted and shallow-breathing prime ministers, or if leaders elected on a "crisis management" platform are the ones who fan the crises or at least don't extricate themselves and us from them.

Almost imperceptibly, the Israel of the past two years has become an unparalleled heroic experiment: to see how we manage with a prime minister who is purportedly "a regular guy," as is common in various "properly run countries." Not "unique in his generation," not endowed with great charisma, not a general and not beset by traumas.

This experiment has failed for strange and varied reasons ostensibly connected to Olmert's personality. But when most of the Kadima candidates (with the exception of Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz) come from a similar background, creatures of the political trend of diplomatic compromise and with a proclivity toward a civilian rather than military agenda, it will soon become clear if the Olmert case has been a freak accident on the way to normalization, or a warning sign that indicates that this path is still blocked to civilian vehicles: Only a military Humvee can travel this road.

None of the candidates for prime minister can promise ease and tranquillity. But if the Israeli government is headed by a reasonable civilian, a regular guy or gal who will be neither denounced nor rejected as such and will stay on the bucking horse in the governmental rodeo for more than a fraction of a second, this in itself will be considered a victory in the reality show of our lives.