The first book my mother bought me to read myself was America and its Presidents. Being a dutiful son, I took the hint and spent my first two decades aspiring to be the first Jewish president.
I have now reached a sufficiently advanced age to say with confidence that the closest I will ever come to the White House is sharing a birthday with President Obama (and Yasir Arafat, a frequent visitor). Life, however, has provided its compensations for unattained dreams, one of them being the assurance that at least I’ll never be prime minister of Israel – the black kippah and failure to master a proper Hebrew accent protect me from what must surely rank as the worst job in the world.
Israeli prime ministers are doomed even before they enter office. The only two prime ministers in recent memory who did not leave office heartily loathed were Yitzchak Rabin, who was cut down by an assassin before Oslo had fully blown up in his face, and Ariel Sharon, felled by a stroke before the disaster of the Gaza withdrawal was evident to all.
There are many reasons for these failures, but surely one of the most obvious is that the prime minister has so little time to focus on the challenges facing the country. Even before the votes are cast, he or she is busy in coalition negotiations, which occupy almost his entire time. Elections do little more than reset the pieces on the chess board. More than two weeks after the last elections we still have no idea what form the next government will take..
Nor does the game end with the formation of a government. The making and breaking of coalitions continues apace. Governments rarely serve out their terms. Israel democracy has come to resemble an American square dance: Swing your partner round and round, and dotsey-doh on back home. Then do it all over again.
In the intervals between elections, the prime minister cannot present a unified government policy to the nation or the rest of the world. Half the cabinet does not owe its loyalty to him. Each cabinet minister has his or her own foreign policy, which he is only too happy to share on the morning news. Had Amos Gilad been a minister, rather than a civil servant, his harsh criticism of Prime Minister Olmert in Maariv would have been par for the course. The top cabinet positions are held by political rivals, if not sworn enemies (albeit sometimes from the prime minister’s own party.)
Nor does the government have the benefit of the best talents. Daniel Friedmann and Yaakov Neeman are the only two cabinet ministers in the last fifteen years selected for their professional expertise, unless one counts the dubious practice of appointing ex-generals and chiefs-of-staff as defense ministers.
Just as the government lacks the ability to concentrate on the myriad threats facing Israel so too the citizenry. Our media spends most of its time writing about the issues of the day as if trying out for the sports pages or the gossip column – Who’s winning today? Which coalition head was seen talking to whom last night? We hear about the education crisis only when another set of disastrous international results is released and the water crisis only when we can’t flush the toilet or water the lawn. The only issue written about extensively is the “peace process,” about which a fresh word has not been said in years.
Who can remember reading, for instance, about the relative advantages of the Nautilus laser defense system and the Iron Dome anti-missile missile system? And yet fewer issues could be of greater moment to the lives of millions of citizens in the North and South. Even assuming equal efficiency, if one system costs $2,000 per Kassam and the other $80,000, it is clear that the latter allows Hamas to bankrupt us in short order for pennies.
PERHAPS THERE IS a country somewhere in the world that can afford to have its prime minister involved almost full-time in political intrigue. But that country is not Israel. No country in the world faces the same multitude and magnitude of threats as Israel. In no other country, would missiles falling on both the North and South in a single day be treated as an everyday event, barely making a dent on our consciousness.
Within the next six months, the prime minister will have to make the most fateful and difficult decision to face an Israeli prime minister since 1967. He will have to decide whether Israel is going to learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, whose reigning theology makes it impossible to rule out the employment of nuclear weapons against Israel on the basis of game theory.
Against a nuclear Iran, he will have to weigh the possibility of an Israeli attack triggering a massive missile barrage on Israel from North and South and from Iran itself. In addition, he will have to factor in Israel’s short and long-term standing in an already hostile international community. An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will cause oil prices to shoot up again, at a time when the whole global economy is already tottering on the edge of worldwide depression. And if Iran sends into action sleeper terror cells in Europe and the United States, it will be impossible to argue that the terror has nothing to do with Israeli actions. While balancing all these conflicting factors, the prime minister will have to factor in the question of whether Israel even has the capacity to significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program, especially if American strongly opposes a strike.
In such a situation, the prime minister needs the most talented and most serious people around him, and the ability to concentrate fully upon the decision at hand. At present, that seems like an impossible dream.
Many of the arguments in favor of governmental reform are also arguments in favor of a unity government at this point, like the one formed on the eve of the Six-Day War. Whatever decision is taken vis-a-vis Iran’s nuclear reactor should be taken by the broadest possible government, since every Israeli’s life is on the line. This is manifestly not the time for Tzippi Livni to stand around, as one Post columnist recommended this week, gleefully waiting to see whether Binyamin Netanyahu’s government will topple in the next six months.
There are no overwhelming ideological or policy barriers to such a government at present. If Livni has any views on the economy or education, she did not have time to express them while boogeying the night away on the campaign trail. And though she adopted the Obamaesque mantle of hope in the waning days of her campaign (just as Sharon did before the Gaza withdrawal), she knows very well that there is, at present, no potential Palestinian government that has prepared its people for a sustainable peace, and that can provide Israelis the security guarantees they require or deliver upon those guarantees.
In short, it’s time to get serious about running this country. Our lives are at stake.
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 26 February, 2009.