The Disappointing Lost Generation

MK Avraham Burg's anticipated departure from political life is more than a private event - the former Knesset Speaker represents a generation of politicians that originally inspired great hopes. Burg, who heads home disenchanted and disappointed, actually represents two generations of Israeli politicians, those who are today in their 50s and 60s and who have been pushed to the margins of the public arena. These are native-born Israelis who came to public life after the generation of founders and instead of bringing a new, revolutionary platform based on a coherent ideology, they turned into functionaries who drove to a dead end of Israeli politics, leaving behind nothing more than a few organizational changes.

This truism has proved most devastating in the Labor party, but it spans all Israeli parties. Members of this generation managed to bring about real ideological change in only one party - the young National Religious Party's revolution in the early 1970s transformed it from a moderate nationalist force to an extremist one. This was a far-reaching change, but not one to the NRP's benefit.

Once upon a time the politicians of this generation were full of promise. Labor party (then Mapai) members who were born in the 1940s were the new Israelis, the answer to the exhausted politics of the aging generation of founders. They were not part of the legendary fighting units of the 1948 War of Independence. Some of them even organized into intellectual circles, something that is no longer part of the political landscape. Gradually, they won election to the Knesset; some served as ministers, but none made it to the top. The older generation, along with the generals who parachuted directly into politics from the army, continued to block their way to the pinnacle of power.

Submissive and helpless, they began to disappear. What legacy did political figures like Gad Ya'akobi, Moshe Shahal and Uzi Baram leave? Just two of them stood out, and survived, Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid. These two blazed a genuine ideological path, but they could not do so in the Labor party, and both quit Labor in disgust. It is also true that neither Aloni nor Sarid made it to the top tier of decision-makers.

The next generation also inspired hope at first. A core of well-educated, articulate new Labor politicians was to be the "next generation" in Israeli public life. Like their predecessors, these new politicians hoped to steer politics leftward, toward recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and in favor of leaving Lebanon. Yet nobody in this group walked that extra mile to accomplish these ends. Concepts like human rights and worker rights were never really part of their vocabulary. Promoting their own careers took precedence, even as the settlers movement took root, with Labor's help, right under their noses. They never roared in protest against the injustice of occupation in the territories, or social inequality; instead they remonstrated against their own lack of political progress. For these reasons, their influence was marginal. Though they rose a little higher than their predecessors, they never reached positions of real decision-making power - the exception here being Yossi Beilin, who adhered to a clear ideological view and became the engine behind the Oslo agreements. Those positions were occupied by Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.

Now members of this generation are fading away. In their case too, the most ideological members are the ones who will remain. While it's impossible to know just how long Haim Ramon will stick around in politics, one can guess that he'll make the transition from the world of political deal-making to the real business world of deal-making. So, it seems, Beilin will be the last one to remain. He is the only one who pursued an ideological platform, and like Aloni and Sarid, he had to quit the Labor party.

Nor did members of Likud's once young generation - Ehud Olmert, Roni Milo, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Limor Livnat, David Levy - leave any real ideological imprint. For them, with the exception of Begin and, to some extent, Meridor, deal-making became the art. For instance, if Ehud Olmert, a veteran and at first glance successful politician who is today Deputy Prime Minister, were asked to name one significant accomplishment, or to cite one meaningful line from his many statements, he would stand tongue-tied. After forty years of striving, all that he and the others have left behind are ploys, deals and personal advances.

Olmert is just one example. With the exception of Begin, nobody in this circle ever proposed an ideological platform for the party. The ones who did - like Begin and Meridor, whose world view was never sufficiently clear and whose influence was marginal - also ended up out of their party. The real ideological legacy was left by the founders' generation, by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, and by successors such as Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu who did not work their way up the party's ranks.

The personal fate of members of this lost generation of politicians is meaningless, but the problem is that the emptiness they leave behind is the desolation in all our lives. These are politicians who might have brought a message of change, and they betrayed our trust. They should have been a civilian response to the militarism which has permeated all walks of life, but they were no such antidote. To a great extent, Israel's status and moral image has materialized as a result of these young politicians, whose disappointing performance left us at the mercy of an army of security experts who act as though they know absolutely everything.