The Consigliere

From the great white hope, Haim Ramon turned into a classic number two. Instead of running for the top, Ramon became the ultimate consigliere to a succession of prime ministers.

Haim Ramon will be remembered for his whale speech. It was delivered at the Labor Party convention in January 1994, when he was serving as health minister. In it, Ramon took on the entire party leadership. "Like a whale that has lost its sense of direction, you are storming the beach again and again, seeking to commit suicide," he told them. "And I, with my feeble strength, am pushing you into the life-giving water. But you don't want it, you don't want it. You insist on committing suicide."

A few weeks after this speech, Ramon resigned from his ministry (and from the Labor Party) and set out to clean up the filthy stables at the Histadrut labor federation headquarters on Arlosoroff Street in Tel Aviv. At that time, the Histadrut was a moldy, corrupt organization, focused solely on petty politics, and with 4,000 mostly unnecessary employees on the payroll.

The whole filthy organization survived by virtue of the money it received from the Clalit health maintenance organization. And its sole purpose was to serve as a permanent campaign organization for the Labor Party.

Ramon waged war against the Histadrut's old guard and succeeded in vanquishing Haim Haberfeld. He thereby gained control of a sick organization, suffering from huge deficits and a blatant conflict of interest.

At that time, the Histadrut had its hand in a significant chunk of the economy: Bank Hapoalim, Koor, Soleh Boneh, Shikun Ovdim, Housing and Construction, the Hassneh insurance agency, the Clalit HMO and all the major pension funds. But all these enterprises were gradually sinking under the weight of failed, unprofessional management, enormous waste and political appointments of executives.

The Histadrut was also unable to fulfill its chief function - representing all the economy's workers - because it was a large employer, with the same interests as any other owner. Ramon relieved it of this burden. He sold off the failing enterprises and liberated the Histadrut from its conflict of interests. It thereby became a worthy labor representative. He also completed the healthcare revolution by separating Clalit from the Histadrut, removing politics from healthcare.

Histadrut activists never forgave him for these two revolutions. The dinosaurs, who were not destroyed, screamed at him during the 1994 party convention: "You will never be elected here, never!" And they were right.

Ramon was incapable of winning an internal Labor Party election. Therefore, he promoted the idea of a political "big bang," which finally came to pass much later and resulted in the birth of Kadima.

In the diplomatic realm, Ramon started off as an unapologetic leftist and led the Labor Party faction known as the "Group of Eight." Later, he was drawn toward the center. But he believed in the "two states for two peoples" solution, and that is what lay behind his proposal to build the separation fence: They would be there, and we would be here.

Ramon believed that the very act of building a fence along the Green Line (more or less) would make a division into two states a fait accompli, such that anyone who wanted to live in Israel would have to move westward.

But this did not happen. The fence turned into a brutal wall that bit off chunks of the West Bank, and not only were the settlers not weakened, they actually increased in numbers and grew stronger.

Ramon was one of the architects of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, and also supported Ehud Olmert's convergence plan in the West Bank - both due to this same two-state approach.

But after he left the Histadrut (with excessive haste), he lost his killer instinct, his desire to reach the top. He stopped fighting. The fact is that he never managed to obtain a top portfolio: He was neither defense minister, finance minister nor foreign minister.

The sad truth is that the dinosaurs of the Labor Party defeated him. They prevented him from winning internal party elections, and when Kadima was formed, Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres were ahead of him in line. Then came the incident in which he forcibly kissed a female soldier and put a final end to his political career.

From the great white hope, he turned into a classic number two. Instead of running for the top, Ramon became the ultimate consigliere to a succession of prime ministers: Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. They loved him and made use of his political talents, but always as merely a right-hand man.

What can you do? Even the most perspicacious whale needs to have a desire to survive and keep moving. Otherwise, it ends up committing suicide on the beach.