The Conscience of Leaders

Israel urgently needs to develop and advance a new genre of leader.

A difficult dilemma facing leaders of democracies is finding a correct balance between domestic politics and considerations of statecraft.

Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said that "Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic politics." This is exaggerated, but domestic political concerns do often exert too much influence on Israeli statecraft. This is endemic in democracies, but Israel's unique features make this behavior especially dangerous.

Henry Kissinger

A simplistic version of democracy justifies giving decisive weight to domestic political considerations, according to the abstract principle that if a society chooses democratically to commit suicide it is entitled to do so. But this is nothing more than a slogan for a state that does not face real dangers. In the face of serious problems, a deeper understanding of democracy imposes on elected leaders the duty to take care of future generations, while accepting the domestic political risks of doing so. This is clearly Israel's situation.

To give the necessary priority to statecraft considerations over domestic political calculations, we need highly principled leaders instead of ones concerned mainly with staying in power. A career-oriented leadership acts according to the motto "politics is the art of the possible" - doing what does not carry significant party-political and personal-political risks. In contrast, the principled leader's conscience commits him to act as he thinks is necessary for the long term, trying to convince the public that this is what should be done, while being willing to take personal political risks.

Two half-concrete and half-hypothetical examples will clarify what is required from the conscience of the principled leaders Israel needs. Let's assume a leader faces the decision whether to continue a construction freeze in the occupied West Bank, which he thinks statecraft considerations require but may trigger a government crisis and endanger his political future. A principled leader will not declare that a construction freeze is impossible politically. Instead, he will explain to the public what is essential for Israel's future and try to mobilize the necessary support, while insisting on the freeze even if this risks the coalition and his political standing.

Or, let's assume that a leader faces the decision whether to release many terrorist prisoners in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldiers, though intelligence indicates that the Israelis are probably dead. And the leader is convinced that agreeing will encourage attacks on many Israelis in the future, but he is subjected to intense public pressure "to do everything to return our boys home, or at least their bodies for a Jewish burial," and refusing may harm his political future. If he has the conscience of a principled leader he will explain his choice and try to mobilize support, but he will refuse the bargain and not give in to public pressure despite the resulting domestic political risks.

Many leaders all around the world and throughout history, with conspicuous but all too few exceptions, cling to the pillars of power and flinch from domestic political risks. And they calm their consciences with various illusionary excuses such as "the public good requires that I remain a leader at whatever cost." The scarcity of leaders who voluntarily resign because they cannot act as they think is essential for the public good is clear proof of this state of affairs. Much of what is bad in the world stems from this serious defect in the conscience of leaders. But in the vast majority of countries the preference given to domestic political interests over statecraft requirements does not seriously endanger the future of nations. In Israel the situation is different.

Israel is still a state in the making. Despite its heroic achievements its future thriving is not assured, so it is imperative to give priority to statecraft considerations over domestic political convenience. Consequently, Israel needs leaders who prefer endangering their political careers and parties over acting in ways they regard as bad in terms of statecraft. We have had a few such leaders, probably more than in other countries, but far too few to cope with the challenges. And these leaders are often overwhelmed by the majority of career-fixated ones.

This is not an invitation to leaders to "fall on their swords." Most Israelis are not stupid. A leader who understands Israel's political psychology - not many do - can with the help of unconventional appeals mobilize public support for policies that seem to carry many domestic political risks. But a leader who is not ready to endanger his career will bend with the political wind instead of insisting on the statecraft he thinks is correct - with all the resulting dangers to Israel's future.

Many Israeli leaders, despite the distinguished but all too few exceptions, suffer from additional serious failures such as dogmatism, a misunderstanding of reality, simplistic thinking and an apparatchik political culture. Therefore, Israel urgently needs to develop and advance a new genre of leader. (This goes for other countries, too, but much more so for Israel ). Improving the conscience of leaders is the first essential step.