Year of the Lilliputians

If, as the historian Thomas Carlyle said, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men," what will we say about the history of the waning Hebrew calendar year and perhaps about the one to come?

If, as the historian Thomas Carlyle said, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men," what will we say about the history of the waning Hebrew calendar year and perhaps about the one to come? When before us apparently lies the biography of very small men; "dwarfs," as Anwar Sadat - one of the last of the genuine giants of the past century - used to define his opponents: those uninspired, inert, malicious, imagination-starved, visionless squanderers of opportunities, the kind of people who currently seem to be determining our fates as we straddle two millennia.

Complaints about a "leadership crisis" have been habitual ever since World War II. It just may be that years of tranquillity, prosperity and peace engender "small" leaders and not the "larger than life" variety, while years of crisis and distress produce "great" leaders almost against their will.

However, in the past year, in our region, we have witnessed a reverse, quite bizarre, phenomenon: On the one hand - years of hope, prosperity and tranquillity (relatively speaking, of course) that collapsed virtually all at once as a consequence of the actions of pretentious and arrogant leaders, each one of whom counted himself on a par with the giants of past eras; and, on the other hand - a period of distress and crisis that generated a small and visionless leadership that is clearly at a loss.

Last Rosh Hashanah, had anyone predicted that Ariel Sharon, of all people, would be elected to try to pick up the pieces left behind by Ehud Barak, he would have been considered nuts. After all, the latter was (at least in his own eyes) deemed the direct descendant of Ben-Gurion, while many suspected the former of being an indirect descendant of Attila the Hun. But if this inconceivable role-switching could occur, then it is primarily because it was a reflection of a much stranger metamorphosis undergone (at least in our perception) by a third leader: Yasser Arafat. In this case, Ben-Gurion and Attila the Hun did not switch places between two people, but within one man.

It has been said that "Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." In our region, all of these types of candidates have managed to escape greatness as if fleeing from a collapsing tower: The one who was "born great" - Ehud Barak, a man gifted with intellect and courage - fell prey to arrogance and didn't know how to make use of his talents; Arafat, who had greatness literally fall into his hands - let it drop and shatter on the ground, missing a historic opportunity while vacillating between his gangster's inferiority complexes and fears, and his Saladin-like delusions of grandeur. And as for Sharon: As an elderly prime minister who has nothing to lose but his bad name, he certainly could achieve greatness, albeit in his torturous way; but it so far appears that after a career consisting entirely of torpedoing, outflanking, obstruction and coercion - he has primarily surrounded and paralyzed himself.

The man who has spent the majority of his public life engaged in countless small-time and slyly calculated short-range moves whose main purpose was to sabotage bigger and wiser long-range moves - is left without a political horizon of his own. What message does he have for the nation and the world at this point? What else is there for him to do - besides deceiving Peres, adopting a mantle of silence, ridiculing Ra'anan Cohen, winking at the settlers, tightening the siege around Arafat that was halted in Beirut, continuously adding to an ever-swelling government by fattening himself with more and more deputy ministers and the crumbs from disintegrating parties - without really knowing where he wants to go with all of this?

He has got himself so tightly twisted up in all those maneuvers aimed at misleading, blocking, tightening, circumventing, placing wedges and setting traps that were his life's work, in his devotion to certain "principles" and the settlements - that he now finds himself utterly immobile, like a giant caterpillar moving neither in nor out, right nor left, forward nor backward. And certainly not upward. It would be practically a biological miracle were he to suddenly unfold his wings and turn into a butterfly.

And if the top is dominated by small-mindedness, duplicity, pettiness, blind inertia and a focus on personal survival - what can we expect from the lower echelons? How can we complain about the entire political system, from the Labor Party to the Center Party? Precisely in this critical year, our politics have become a kind of herpetarium filled with grasping and slippery creatures who have made an art form of blending into the woodwork and evading responsibility.

Meanwhile, the real giants revealed around these parts this year were actually "the little people on the street" - particularly those heroes who were prepared to risk their lives to prevent terrorist attacks and save others. How did one such hero so stirringly put it - in what can be considered the Quote of the Year, the one that thoroughly illustrates the entire tragicomic, absurd difference between civic responsibility and leadership dwarfism? "I'm glad I stopped the terrorist because, in doing so, I prevented a war in the region."

At the conclusion of an utterly accursed year, in which all of our hopes and yearnings were thrown into the garbage bin, the only wish left to make is this: "Let the old year and its dwarfs end, and let the new year and its giants begin." Actually, even average stature would be a blessing right now.