Nimrod Novik
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
May 20, 2008 - 3:59pm

For decades, we Israelis have found ourselves frustrated by the shortcomings of our leaders and yearning for the miracle of a mid-life genetic mutation: an act of nature or nurture that would mesh the best in each and thus produce the ideal leader.

Most still remember the Peres-Rabin rivalry dominating Israeli politics for almost 30 years. Complimenting each other in character and skill, jointly they could have made that perfect leader. Neutralizing each other in an endless personal rivalry, they had to be in their seventies to realize that separately they were handicapped, but jointly unstoppable. Alas, that moment was all too brief, as a despicable assassin put an end to the life of our prime minister and to a unique hour of hope in our country's history.

They neither invented nor were the last incarnation of the phenomenon.

The next generation is now in charge. From the outset, jointly they seemed to represent much of what Israel needed to unleash our national energies onto a new chapter in domestic and regional politics. The three of them--PM Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, or "Mr. Politics, Mr. Security and Ms. Marketing"--share a commitment to a very similar agenda, yet thus far they have failed to translate that common vision into a joint action plan. While, as in most human endeavors, the reasons for this are both numerous and elusive, personal ambivalence and the all too familiar mutual mistrust seem to dominate their relations.

Until recently, few would have identified either Olmert or Livni--children to leading figures in Israel's Right and themselves firm opponents of territorial (or other) concessions for peace--with the peace camp. Nor is Barak--the formal leader of that camp by virtue of his chairmanship of the Labor party--perceived as the classic Israeli peacenik. This is due less to their current views, which closely resemble those of the extreme left some 25 years ago, than to the shifting sands of Israeli politics. The three of them personify the centralization of Israeli society around one theme: resignation to the need to divide the land with the Palestinians coupled with doubts that this is doable given the current state of Palestinian politics.

However, our leading trio shares not only a less romantic view of the peace process than previous advocates of a compromise. Each of the three also exhibits an additional layer of personal ambivalence about it.

Over the past couple of years, with all other misgivings, Israelis have grown to recognize Olmert's mastery of politics and sincerity in seeking an accommodation with our neighbors. Yet, his political DNA seems to have the upper hand in a tug of war with his new found membership in the peace camp. By amplifying the potential risks to his coalition--hence to his tenure--hesitation and half measures have thus far substituted for bold decisions. His recent encounter with yet another investigation for alleged violation of laws governing campaign finance, coming in the wake of earlier police investigations--some already dismissed, others still pending--and a damaging verdict concerning his management of the Second Lebanon War introduce yet another complicating factor. On the one hand if destined to fall, Olmert would rather it be due to the disintegration of his coalition over major efforts for peace than because of charges of wrongdoing. On the other hand, courageous decisions toward peace will be met with accusations by the opposition of "selling national assets for the sole purpose of changing the agenda".

Barak needs to prove nothing: as prime minister he had the courage to slaughter "sacred cows" that none of his predecessors dared touch. Like Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu he was prepared to withdraw from the Golan Heights in the context of peace with Syria. Unlike any of them, his platform for peace with the Palestinians included not only the return of most of the West Bank but the division of Jerusalem as well. His failure to accomplish either has as much to do with his shortcomings as a negotiator as it was due to the mistakes and failures of his various interlocutors. Yet his problems as a negotiator did not tarnish domestic appreciation for his analytical brilliance, political courage and security credentials. The post-Camp David violence left him ever more skeptical about prospects for progress with the Palestinians, to the point of hostility to any relaxation of security measures in the service of political negotiations.

The third member of the current leading team, Livni, is here dubbed "Ms. Marketing" because broad segments of the Israeli public--left, right and center--who differ on much of the national agenda, consider her the most reliable and trustworthy among national leaders. While this is certainly a personal compliment, it is no less a potent asset in the government's arsenal when the time comes to seek public support for the tough decisions associated with any peace agreement. Yet, in the absence of personal experience with previous rounds of negotiations, her role as chief negotiator with the Palestinians accentuates the arduous process of internalizing the requisites of an agreement.

Thus, the three are committed to the same agenda, yet--for different reasons--pursue it half-heartedly. Nor is that the whole story: political ambition further reduces prospects for cooperation among them on the sensitive aspects of the peace process.

The fact that all three aspire to the same post of prime minister makes them allies in blocking the fourth (and presently more popular) contender, Binyamin Netanyahu representing the Right, but rivals in seeking support from the country's Center and Left. The current Olmert difficulties serve to accentuate this reality: the last thing Barak would like to see is a popular Livni replacing the politically crippled Olmert at the head of Kadima.

Dealing with Hamas is a case in point. Individually and privately, all three have reached the conclusion that "undoing" Hamas by force is not possible. All three now believe that engaging Hamas--albeit by proxy--is essential for restoring tranquility to Israel's southern population, preventing a new wave of terrorism, avoiding the massive casualties of a major--yet inconclusive--military operation in Gaza and bringing home Corporal Gilad Shalit from his captivity. They are also convinced that without some form of an intra-Palestinian reconciliation, the preferred partner for peace, President Mahmoud Abbas, is ineffective.

Yet, when it comes to publicly articulated positions or even to Cabinet deliberations, one can find little evidence of this reality. Only close scrutiny of steps taken or avoided (e.g., in the location, timing, scope and specific targets of military operations) and the content of messages carried by third parties, especially Egyptians, reveals a policy of "creeping accommodation" of Hamas.

The price for such incrementalism is high. Not only does it delay opportunities for ending the agony of all victims of the current status quo--Israelis and Palestinians, civilians and uniformed--but prospects for a different reality do not improve with time. Still, our leading trio can make a difference. Even with the recent allegations against Olmert--which will not mature into accusations or dismissal for many months--they've got the time and much of what it takes to change the course of history. They need to take a page from the textbook of their predecessors to realize that separately they are handicapped, but jointly they may be unstoppable.


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