The blank page option

Abraham Lincoln said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power." The leaders in our neighborhood, as well as the American president who just came from Washington to visit us, have been given power and their character has been found wanting. Olmert, Barak, Netanyahu, Abu Mazen, Bush, the Hamas leaders, Mubarak, Assad–the list is long and depressing. Here and there we find possible glimpses of good leadership–Livni, Fayyad and Abdullah of Jordan come to mind. But they are as yet untried or unfulfilled, hence below the cutoff point required for our judgment. Nowhere do we find a Ben-Gurion, a Sadat, a Begin, a Rabin or a Hussein of Jordan.

The temptation, particularly in writing about leadership in the Israeli-Palestinian context, is simply to leave the page blank.

Since first perceiving themselves as a people or a nation, the Palestinians have had only three national leaders. Haj Amin al-Husseini and Yasser Arafat took power and led them to repeated disasters. Mahmoud Abbas inherited power but does not know how to translate it into authority; moreover, his status as a truly national leader must be questioned since Hamas took over Gaza. For nearly 100 years, the Palestinians have failed at nation-building–perhaps the ultimate test of the use of power.

Compared even to our Arab state neighbors, Palestine constitutes without doubt a depressing instance of the failure of leadership. Israel, incidentally, is finally becoming aware just how severely it suffers from the Palestinian leadership’s extended failure to create a stable state neighbor. That the Palestinians almost exclusively blame Israel for their failures does not enhance their case. Yet Israel’s own leadership failings have undoubtedly contributed heavily to this state of affairs.

Israel itself is not nearly as badly off. Yet all its recent leaders failed at both peace and war and most were the subject of repeated police inquiries. Under present circumstances, it’s hard to imagine the emergence of a Begin or a Rabin.

Many outside observers from the democratic countries would at this point remark that we Israelis are being too tough on our leaders. Or, put differently, our leadership problems are shared by much of the western world we aspire to belong to. Look, for example, at the mediocre and at times ludicrous nature of politics in the United States, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. The blame, it is suggested, has to be directed at least partially at the environment: the asphyxiating media, the intrusive courts, the total lack of privacy that drives all the good men and women away from politics.

Indeed, here in Israel our politicians are subject to problematic fundraising norms, corrupting primary systems and horrific constituent pressures. Wealth and politics are now thoroughly and fatally mixed. Nevertheless, one might argue, our leaders are talented people who work hard day and night for our safety and welfare and who don’t deserve the microscopic scrutiny they are constantly subjected to.

If you want to appreciate how tough our leaders have to be, note the instances of good people like Dan Meridor, Uzi Baram and Avraham Burg–all candidates for national leadership–who felt obliged to leave politics at a relatively young age because they refused to continue exposing themselves and their families to the unfair pressures of public life. I myself was once a rising young activist in what purported to be one of Israel’s most civilized and well-run parties; I left it at an early stage, thoroughly disgusted with the level of politics. I can appreciate the staying-power and survival skills required of an Olmert, a Netanyahu or a Barak.

Yet they remain mediocre leaders, tainted by charges of corruption and lack of strategic insight and "human" skills. And perhaps our biggest problem is that we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of mediocre leadership that the West enjoys. There, if the civilian or security leadership performs poorly the private sector, where all the talented people seem to have gone, takes up the slack. Here in Israel, on the other hand, while many of the most talented people also seem to have gone into the globalized private sector, the threats against our security and even our existence are such that we simply must have more of them in the public sector, and soon. That means radically changing the system. And that is not about to happen.

A blank page, indeed.