Call to Greatness

On the eve of his last year as a successful university president, Avishay Braverman is waiting for a special chair to be put in place for him.

Not far from the Ramat Gan stadium was Reichman's auto repair shop. On the other side of the street was Braverman's carpentry shop. Reichman's son, Uriel, would come during summer vacations to help out in the body shop; Braverman's son, Avishay, would lend a hand at the carpentry shop. If there is any substance to the journalistic speculations about the possibility of a political "big bang" process, the auto repairman's son, Prof. Uriel Reichman, president of the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, and the carpenter's son, Prof. Avishay Braverman, the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), will meet under the rafters at the sheep-raiser's home.

Reichman, chairman of the Shinui party's presidium, has already been spattered by the grease of politics. Braverman, at the age of 57, on the eve of his last year as a successful university president, is waiting for a prepared chair to be put in place for him. Not a Knesset member's chair, nor that of a junior government minister. Last spring, when the name Braverman cropped up again as a candidate for finance minister and perhaps governor of the Bank of Israel, Yoel Marcus wrote in Haaretz that a number of years ago, Braverman had told him that he wanted to be prime minister. "Nu, so roll up your sleeves," suggested Marcus. "No, no," replied the professor. "I want them to turn to me."

Seven years ago, when his name came up for finance minister on behalf of the (now-defunct) Center Party, Braverman told a local Haifa weekly that "the job of a politician necessitates being dishonest and bullying. Today the political arena in this country is made up mainly of wheeler-dealers and generals, and everyone can see the result." At that very same time, Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami, Braverman's close friend, was slogging around the Labor Party branches, on his way to the Foreign Ministry. The historian from Kiryat Shmona knew that in modern times, nobody parachutes to the top in a suit and tie. Indeed, the way down is paved with intrigues and bullying, minor politicos and mediocre generals.

Braverman hates small politics, but greatly loves big politicians. He has a direct line to Vice Premier Shimon Peres and he was also connected to Yitzhak Rabin. He is considered a political dove, but saw to it that BGU would be the first award an honorary doctorate to Ariel Sharon. This happened only a few months after Sharon came to the Prime Minister's Bureau from the Temple Mount, when he still considered Netzarim an inalienable part of the State of Israel. In his defense Braverman said that he had also given an honorary doctorate to activist Lova Eliav. Many lecturers, among them some who praised him when he hired historian Dr. Benny Morris, who was considered a leftist at the time, accused Braverman of bootlicking.

A year ago, when Education Minister Limor Livnat demanded that he dismiss Dr. Lev Grinberg in the wake of (distorted) reports about criticism he had expressed abroad of the policy of targeted assassinations, his critics in academia charged that Braverman was tiptoeing between the raindrops. Few are the politicians who would have managed to maneuver between right and left without getting wet.

PR gimmicksLike a politician, Braverman makes use of spokesmen, strategic advisers, friendly journalists and public relations gimmicks. He will not forget to invite Allon Ben-Gurion, who has been living in the United States for years, to recite the blessing after the meal at a banquet for donors to the university that embodies Grandpa's message to settle the Negev. Braverman will not forget to insert into his speech a very important detail: He did his doctorate at Stanford University, the heart's desire of every American yuppie.

In this way, within 15 years, one transforms a negligible university on the periphery into a leading academic institution where the best experts and students are beating down the doors. In this way, one becomes an object of envy to university heads whose ballooning deficits are forcing them to fire lecturers and close departments. In this way, too, one easily convinces the university's senate to bend the regulations and grant the president a fourth term.

If the politicians don't parachute him into the government, he is promised the title of governor of the university. Of Ben-Gurion's vision there remains mainly Braverman's speeches and the conferences he brings to Be'er Sheva. The university has not transformed "the capital of the Negev" into a city that attracts young people to settle there and it has not made the desert bloom. Most of the lecturers prefer to live in the center of the country. Braverman blames the authorities, who have not kept an old promise to improve the railway to the south. A senior lecturer, a veteran member of the Ben-Gurion University faculty, says that Braverman has not shaken off the influence of the economic neo-liberalism he absorbed during the years he spent in the top echelons of the World Bank.

The secret of Braverman's strength and the secret of his weakness are a large ego and tremendous ambition. To a certain extent he is reminiscent of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. All three of them are talented, intelligent and diligent people. All three of them cannot understand why political dwarfs, people lacking vision and short of sight, are not making way for them, and how it is possible that the Israeli nation is not immensely grateful that people like themselves are prepared to bestow something of their greatness upon it.