Reprinted form The Jerusalem Post of December 31, 1998


Israel's Uniform Fetish

By Daniel Doron

Like successive marriages, the blind faith of Israelis that "clean, new" leadership will set all wrongs right represents the triumph of hope over experience. Again and again, our statist distributive system corrupts politics and brings out the worst, even in the best. Rampant statism has ground the Soviet empire to dust, and caused us disaster after disaster. Yet, after each catastrophe, we search amidst the rubble for a new white hope, clinging to the illusion that given the "right" leadership, Israel can revive itself without paying the painful cost of true reform.

Each time we swear never to trust politicians again, but then follow, like enchanted children, the latest pied piper: Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Yigael Yadin, Ezer Weizman or Yitzhak Rabin ­ all, incidentally, ex­generals. Israelis obviously prefer their saviors in mufti. This despite ample evidence that generals, with few exceptions, make poor civilian leaders, and even though our generals, judging by our army's cost and performance, have little to crow about.

In fact, some of Israel's greatest calamities occurred when martial men were at the helm. Yet, we seem unable to resist the belief that by some magic, the sheer force of a "clean" leader's personality will create a land of milk­pure politics and honey­sweet prosperity, delivering everything for free: free education, free welfare, free medicine, free dreams.

W.C. Fields opined that new suckers are born every minute, so charlatans will always prosper. In Israel, blind faith seems so ingrained that the stock of suckers doesn't even need replenishing. How else could Amnon Lipkin­Shahak garner so much support before even making any promises, simply because he seems to be a really nice guy with a winning demi­smile; how could Ronni Milo, a failed mayor who could not even collect garbage efficiently, seem a serious contender, just because he rails against the Orthodox?

True, in contrast to most of our politicians, just being a nice guy must seem a great virtue; and railing against the haredim seems like a positive action plan compared to the pablum of meaningless generalities offered by others. And Shahak may, in fact, turn out to be even more than the mere amiable, reliable, "strong­quiet­type" father figure that so many apparently yearn for. An ex­chief of staff, a man of proven bravery, he has many admiring friends (in the right places) and not too many enemies.

But would it not be more prudent if, before placing our destiny in his hands, we asked a few questions and learned how good a chief of staff he really was, and whether the claims of his critics are plain calumny or have some substance? Our army, as anyone who serves in the reserves knows, is not exactly the paragon of good management; perhaps it cannot be. But whatever happened to the much touted "small but efficient and smart fighting force" first promised by Shahak's predecessor, Ehud Barak (whose own record as chief of staff ought to also pass serious scrutiny)?

If generals fail to accomplish their goals in the military, where they command others to do their bidding, why would they be more successful in our dysfunctional political environment? Should military leaders not be held accountable for the army's less­than­stellar performance and the many mishaps and accidents that regularly plague it? Does it not say something about their leadership?

There is, moreover, a nagging feeling that the army, like politicians and the senior government bureaucracy, has become a part of those interlocking elites that dominate our all­pervasive public sector, as well as our so­called " private sector," that is still so dependent on government granted monopoly rents and other "arrangements" that it cannot be considered really private. It is difficult to recall any former generals who have implemented a reform or agitated for change in any of the fields they have entered, or even many that particularly distinguished themselves as managers.

In fact, the same brave pilots who have risked their life while in service, the same brave army doctors and other dauntless fighters have acted, once in civilian life, in a lawless devil­may­care manner in pursuit of their sectorial interests, proving that our system is able to corrupt even the best of men. Indeed, even while he spoke about the need for change, Shahak, in his capacity as a director of Teva, did not hesitate to vote to keep Eli Hurwitz as chairman of the board, though he was convicted of a felony. Nor does he seem embarrassed at trying to piece together a party with candidates whose positions are known to be worlds apart.

True reform of our destructive system will require breaking the stranglehold of our old elites and their corrupting arrangements. It is highly doubtful that this will be accomplished by "one of the boys," by someone dependent for campaign financing and for political clout on the very same "guys from the Jacuzzi," who run the old cozy system ­ however noble and sincere his intentions may be.

(c) Jerusalem Post 1998


Daniel Doron is director of the Israel Center for Social Economic Progress.

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