How Deep Is the Crisis of Leadership in Israel? Reflections on David Grossman?s Speech at the Rabin Memorial Gathering

Being a bereaved father, said the writer David Grossman—to a huge crowd that gathered in Tel Aviv to commemorate the eleventh anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination— gives one no special claim on public morality. And yet the power of his message, of the pained and measured words he chose on a sad and cloudy evening in Rabin Square, was underlined by loss of his son, Uri, a talented and creative young man, in the tank battles during the almost desperate IDF charge that ended the Second Lebanon War. His love affair with this country, he said, with the miracle that Israel has been and should be, has now become a bond of blood and sacrifice; he offered no sense of regret or retreat from his profound commitment to Israel, to the Zionist project per se, but he did raise a powerful and penetrating protest, made all the more poignant for being delivered in a steady, sober voice, against what he described as a profound crisis of leadership: "And it came to pass that in those days there was no king in Israel"—the biblical description of the state of affairs in the time of Judges—was the phrase he chose.

Some of his ideas as to the next steps in the external arena—addressing the Palestinian people "over the heads of Hamas"; negotiating with Syria with the promise of a withdrawal from the Golan at some time in the future—remain intensely controversial. So was his contention (often voiced on the Zionist left) that "everyone knows" what the permanent status agreement will ultimately look like—implying (although he did not say so) a return to the 1967 lines, possibly modified by some one-for-one swaps, and the partition of Jerusalem. But it was not his peace message that resonated with his listeners, and made the full text of his speech front-page news in every major paper in Israel: It was the notion that our present leaders are little more than a clique of politicians, mired in legal troubles and cleverly surviving by what he described as lawyerly tricks, and fundamentally unable to speak to the country from a position of moral authority, address the wounds the war has opened, offer a better future, and give renewed meaning to the dream that drove the Zionist endeavor from its inception.

Of special note in this lament was the loathing aroused among important voices on the Zionist left when the Labor Party, despite a fierce internal debate, chose to stay in Ehud Olmert's coalition despite the entry of Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu Party as a partner. (One minister, Ophir Pines, chose to step down in protest.) Lieberman may exude an aura of "leadership," assertive and self-assured, but to Grossman and many others, it is of precisely the wrong kind: divisive (many say racist); building on fears, not hopes; blunt and, to some extent, blind when it comes to how Israel should be attuned to the views of the outside world. His rise to the position of the second most powerful politician in the country, as Amir Peretz fades in the wake of the war, and Binyamin Netanyahu finds himself outmaneuvered by his own protégé and ally in the 1990s, is to those for whom Grossman speaks a frightening indication as to where the country might be heading. But even worse, insofar as the speech did reflect widespread sentiments, is the sense that it is Olmert himself who has failed, in the aftermath of the war and with the dissipation of his "consolidation" plan (hitkansut) for further unilateral withdrawals, to give a tired and confused people a sense of mission and a notion of what is in store.

"Hollow" is what Grossman called our present political and military leadership, echoing T.S. Eliot. But is he right? Certainly, if you compare their discourse with that of the founding fathers of Israel and the Zionist movement, who were able to offer a perspective amidst the revolutionary transformations of the modern world; whether indeed they could be classified as intellectuals, or just aspired to be able to maintain an effective dialogue with the great minds and ideas of their time, they were truly powerful articulators of visions, of purposes beyond the immediate horizon. This is generally missing from our present political landscape. (Shimon Peres may be the exception that proves the rule, by carrying what sometimes seems like an elevated, but almost forced, intellectual dialogue to the extreme, and thus sounding detached from the bitter reality all around us,)

Yet this may also be a misreading of what actually drives Olmert into his present position of relative reticence—so atypical of the man as we have come to know him in meetings with small AJC groups, or in his magnificent speech before the joint session of the U.S. Congress in May. He is a complex and sophisticated man, whose wife is an artist and a playwright, and who has shown himself capable of dealing effectively with highly complex issues. What has constrained his ability to articulate our challenges and prospects at this troubled time? There may be, one can tentatively suggest, three interlocking reasons:

  • To begin with, the present corrosive climate of suspicion makes it far more difficult than ever before for political figures, as distinct from disinterested intellectuals (or bereaved fathers), to speak to the issues as such, away from the machinations of power and party politics and the cloud of corruption that has come to overhang our life (some of it, as we are learning, perhaps deliberately exaggerated by interested parties in the law enforcement agencies).
  • Moreover, the confusion is genuine. As we adjust to the new landscape in the region, dominated by the rise of Iran and the Islamist challenge, coupled with what seems like the failure of the U.S. transformative project in Iraq—and the collapse of the Palestinian Authority into a culture of utter irresponsibility—there is really very little left (at least until the Iranian question is dealt with, one way or another) that can be used, in real terms, as building blocks for a bridge to a better future. "Why didn't you ring the bells when I entered the village," Napoleon is said to have thundered at his Russian captives. "Many reasons, Emperor," came the answer. "First of all, we have no bells."
  • Finally, there is indeed a disconnect between the world in which Grossman and many other Israelis of the "old school" live—or wish to live—and the moral universe of the present Israeli leadership. There may be bells, to stay with the metaphor, ringing in Olmert's ears, but they do not impress those who are focused on questions of peace and war, of our relations with our Palestinian neighbors, of our place in the region: namely, the ringing bells of Israel's triumphant economic achievements, made all the more impressive by the minimal impact that the war in Lebanon had on our trajectory of growth. Indeed, it may well be that aspects of the way the war was fought, and the timing by which it was ended, reflect the need to remain competitive in the world markets.
In other words, what may well have seemed to Grossman to be hollow is, in fact, filled by considerations of a different kind—leadership in a different sense (and some would say, of a lesser moral order) than we have grown accustomed to. It is a leadership attuned, as the case may be, not to the traditional themes of Israeli politics, but to the need to prosper in an ever-shifting, globalized economy, in which talented young Israelis—and Jews from the Diaspora—can be here today and in Bangalore tomorrow, and in which our credit rating may be as relevant to our future as our fighter squadrons. It may not be easy to articulate such considerations in a society that may see them as barely legitimate, but only the hindsight of history will ultimately tell us if our present leaders read their priorities right.
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