The left is in the throes of a fierce leadership crisis that threatens to become chronic. This bruised camp, its glory days over, longs to return to power. To do so, it needs a strong leader with a sure hand, but none of the candidates satisfy it. It wants something that seems beyond its reach: an extraordinary person who can restore it to greatness.
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The right, we know, does not have this problem. The ruling Likud party is proud that since independence it has had only four leaders: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Although each faced internal opposition, none ever feared ouster. According to conventional wisdom, putsch culture isn’t in Likud’s DNA.
Not so the left. The Labor Party has always been a political slaughterhouse. Since Ehud Barak’s defeat in the 2001 election, the party has changed leaders at a dizzying pace: Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Amram Mitzna, Shimon Peres, Amir Peretz, Barak (born again), Shelly Yacimovich and Isaac Herzog. But none had even an hour’s grace before worrying about his or her rivals sharpening their knives in the dark.
Commentators take various tacks to explain the stark difference in the two camps’ attitude toward their leaders. Most remain within the realm of realpolitik, of interests and naked power. But in order to understand Netanyahu’s relative security, even when he is in the opposition, when Labor’s head must keep constant watch, we must also look at each party’s very different views of its political horizon and its historic purpose.
The right in generally has a powerful sense of purpose. It is certain that its star is on the rise and in the future it will be given the opportunity to shape the Jewish state in its own vision. The belief that “God chose us to rule” throbbed in the heart of the right-wing public (both secular and religious) for many years before it saw the fall of the hegemony of Mapai, Labor’s forerunner. This faith never abandoned it, even when its candidates were handed painful electoral defeats by Barak and Yitzhak Rabin. The feeling that time is on the side of the right can also be seen in the respect it shows its leaders and in the common belief that each has been an improvement over their predecessor.
Begin was an inspiring man, but not blessed with the strength of spirit required of a prime minister. Shamir was as solid as a rock, but lacked charisma. Sharon radiated magnetic power, but his ideological commitment was wanting.
And Netanyahu, with all his weaknesses, overflows with irresistible personal charm and demonstrates staunch devotion to the right-wing worldview. Most important, he seems determined to rule, not only in theory, but in practice.
The sense of ongoing historical victory is far from the consciousness of the Israeli left. It is well aware that it is in constant decline, together with what it perceives as the general decline in the political, moral and intellectual quality of Israeli society. The momentary flickers of exhilaration, that peaked in the euphoric response to the Oslo Accords in 1993, only deepen the disappointment and despair that followed.
Under the influence of the melancholy enveloping the left, it adopted a kind of secular version of the traditional religious doctrine of the “diminution of the generations.” From its perspective, the stature of Israel’s elected leaders is in constant decline: Ben-Gurion’s generation were giants; their successors, as impressive as they were, found it hard to reach that bar, and the politicians who succeeded them were clearly lacking. Today we live in an age of dwarfs.
Unfortunately, such a depressing reading of reality does not encourage realpolitik, but the opposite. And indeed, the greater the left’s discomfort with its leadership, the weaker its faith in its representatives’ abilities to tackle the injustices of Israeli society and its direction, the heavier the burden of expectations born by its future savior: The left is longing for a person to extricate the state from the clutches of the Orthodox and the settlers, to restrain the greediness of the capitalist barons, to shower mercy on the poor and the oppressed and perhaps even to put an end to the occupation.
An ordinary politician cannot accomplish these gargantuan tasks, which would be like turning back the clock of history. Only an extraordinary figure, stamped with greatness, could address them successfully. The left is not waiting for just any leader, it’s waiting for a messiah.
Messianic longings are not the raw materials of healthy politics. These longings sabotage the chances of success of clear-headed politicians, smooth the path of charlatans who scatter false promises and condemn their followers to swing back and forth between ecstasy and despair.
But the left, well versed in failure, refuses to learn from its experience. It is waiting for a strong, authoritative, wondrous leader to restore its lost splendor. This person might already be living among us, like the hidden imam of Shi’ite Islam, the Mahdi, or perhaps this figure’s time has not yet come, like the scion of the house of David. Until then, in the words of Samuel Beckett in “Waiting for Godot”: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes.”
Assaf Sagiv is editor-in-chief of Shalem Press.