Letter from Jerusalem: Loss Leaders
Why are the three contenders for prime minister of Israel all men who have already held the job and received terrible ratings?
And the all-time losers are—dramatic music in background as a starlet hands the envelope to the emcee and the studio audience holds its collective breath—Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu! Applause. In tuxedos, the three stride up to the stage to accept gold statuettes of Herbert Hoover.
O.K., the results were not presented quite that dramatically. They simply appeared in print. In September, the daily Ma’ariv commissioned the Teleseker polling company to ask Israelis to name the worst prime minister in Israeli history. Including the incumbent, Ehud Olmert, there have been 12 to choose from. Olmert (right, at bottom), far and away, was the man most named, by close to 40 percent. Barak (top) and Netanyahu (center) followed.
Naturally, the pollsters also asked respondents to name the best leader with whom Israel has been blessed. Menahem Begin and David Ben-Gurion led that chart, with Yitzhak Rabin in third place. At the very end, receiving precisely zero support, was Olmert. Barak got a fraction of a percent. Netanyahu did slightly better in this round—4.4 percent of Israelis ranked him as the top prime minister, allowing him to beat out Golda Meir (3 percent). That’s small comfort for Bibi. In Israel, in contrast to the diaspora, Golda enjoys no hero’s halo since she is considered responsible for letting Israel be taken by surprise in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
More important, Golda Meir is not currently a candidate for prime minister. Not only does Olmert hold the job as leader of the centrist Kadima Party, his expected challengers are also his competitors for the worst-ever prize—Netanyahu, who was reaffirmed as leader of the right-wing Likud in an August primary, and Barak, who recaptured the Labor crown in a June runoff. What’s going on here?
One might claim that nostalgia has burnished the images of bygone leaders such as Begin and Ben-Gurion. But they also did better in real time. Begin took years to reach the top office, but once there he won reelection. Ben-Gurion overwhelmingly dominated politics in the state’s early years.
Now look at the current trio: Young, telegenic and inexperienced, Netanyahu won a narrow victory in 1996. He lasted less than three years in office, constantly embroiled in conflicts within his own party and coalition. By signing the Wye River accord with Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, he angered the hard right. Yet centrists in his party faulted him for diplomatic intransigence. Forced into early elections, Netanyahu lost by a landslide of 44 to 56 percent to Barak, the decorated ex-Army chief who had been in politics for only four years himself.
Then Barak’s popularity imploded. His promise to make peace with the Palestinians unraveled at the Camp David summit of 2000. The second intifada erupted. Less than two years after taking office, Barak suffered an electoral avalanche, losing 38 to 62 percent to Ariel Sharon. Like Netanyahu before him, Barak declared he was taking time out from politics—an acknowledgement of failure.
As for Olmert, he’s still in office. But his popularity evaporated after the Second Lebanon War last summer. This September, just 35 percent of Israelis rated his job performance as “good” in a Dahaf Institute survey—and that was good news. He had recently gotten a boost from foreign reports that an Israeli air attack in northern Syria may have targeted a North Korea-linked nuclear arms effort. Other polls still show that if elections were held today, he would run far behind Netanyahu and Barak.
Which underlines the question: Why are Israelis choosing from the losers’ club? Is this just a quirk of history, or is something wrong with the system?
In part, the lineup is due to individual circumstances. Practically speaking, the only way that the Knesset could dump Olmert is to call new general elections. But members of parliament would also have to face the voters—and politicians are in no rush to take that risk. If the Winograd Commission on the Lebanon war blasts Olmert in its final report, Kadima members could demand he step down. The party would choose a new leader who could form a coalition and become prime minister without new elections. A decision to indict Olmert on any of several corruption allegations could have the same effect. But the Winograd report is expected only next year, and decisions on the corruption cases will also take time.
Meanwhile, the war boosted Barak’s comeback. His rival, ex-union chief Amir Peretz, was Labor leader and defense minister at the time. Both the public and the Winograd panel’s interim report last spring faulted his inexperience in the defense post. So Barak’s long Army career made him attractive. Barak is now defense minister.
Then there is Netanyahu, who had regained the Likud leadership after Ariel Sharon split the party in 2005. Sharon took many of Netanyahu’s potential rivals with him. What’s more, says Amiel Ungar, diplomatic correspondent for the right-wing Makor Rishon-Hatzofeh paper, “you have a martyr factor…a strong feeling on the right that Netanyahu did not get a fair chance in his term in office” from powerful groups that his supporters see as left-leaning, such as the media.
But larger forces are also at work. as ungar notes, “The political arena is not what it once was.” In Israel’s semi-socialist days, politics was the main path to success. “The public arena as the place that organizes power isn’t as important” any more, says Yagil Levy, a lecturer in public policy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Party politics has to compete with the business world, the media and activist organizations.
In Israel’s early years, everything from banks and unions to health maintenance organizations and sports teams belonged to political parties. The parties, notes political scientist Peter Medding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, were highly disciplined. The institutions they controlled were political farm teams where activists gained experience so they would be picked for Knesset seats by party committees.
By the 1980s, Israel was privatizing, eager to copy America. The parties shed their economic empires, followed by their H.M.O.s. The farm teams vanished, and a politician became someone perpetually campaigning for office.
Under pressure to democratize, the parties also copied America by transplanting primaries to Israel. But it was a transplant to a multiparty system, a different political species. Here, dues-paying members are the voters in primaries. That’s a much smaller constituency than in the United States. Powerful “vote contractors” can sign up large numbers of members and get them to the polls to vote as instructed. This political machinery gives an advantage to someone who has already held power and built alliances. In the recent Labor primary, for instance, Ehud Barak won a runoff vote against another ex-general, Ami Ayalon. Barak also won critical support in Israeli Arab communities, where vote contractors play a major role.
One more factor, argues political sociologist Lev Grinberg of Ben-Gurion University, is that there has been progressively less debate of the issues in recent years. After the second intifada erupted in 2000, he says, political discussion narrowed to how to deal with the uprising militarily. The public has despaired of diplomatic solutions. “There’s a feeling that the political system can’t cope” with the Palestinian issue because “the problems are too big and aren’t dependent on Israel,” Grinberg says. On one hand, the United States administration has invested little in diplomacy; on the other, the Palestinians are internally divided.
Leadership, says Grinberg, means proposing creative solutions. But since no one can depend on what the United States or the Palestinians will do, creative policy proposals don’t look realistic.
And here’s the twist: If no one has a brilliant policy to suggest, politicians can be judged only by how much experience they have. Ironically, the incumbent and former prime ministers are the most experienced. Sure, they made mistakes—but perhaps they have learned from them.
The theory does have historical precedent to back it up: In the mid-1970s, as a young prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin seemed unable to control his own party or coalition and finally quit over a minor financial scandal. Fifteen years later, he returned to office. Rabin 2.0, gray-haired and thoroughly in charge, signed peace agreements and shifted domestic priorities. Of today’s losers, Olmert has the first chance to reinvent himself. As I write, he appears eager to reach a diplomatic breakthrough with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. If he succeeds, he could restore his own stature.
Then again, he might do little more than hang on till the Winograd report. If it knocks him out, his party will have the chance to choose someone else. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is popular among the general public, though critics sometimes ask whether she has enough experience.
Or, perhaps, Olmert will survive, improbably, to face Barak and Netanyahu in a three-way race. Each will claim he has learned from his mistakes and is ready again to lead.
An amazing country, where every Herbert Hoover can yet dream of being Franklin Delano Roosevelt.