Israel is most definitely facing a leadership crisis. It is not only the many failures of our current prime minister, but also the absence of leadership on the opposition side.
In Israel’s democracy, as in most others, the existence of a viable alternative to the ruling regime is essential to maintain the true democratic character of the state, providing the public with a real choice between opposing directions and policies. When, as in Israel today, the main opposition parties and their leaders merely seek to be a better copy of the current ruling party, the public doesn’t really have choice.
We can all agree that Israel’s society is extremely divided between opposing positions on issues concerning the future of our borders and relations with neighboring states, the relationship between the state and its Palestinian Arab citizens, and the relationship between religion and state. On most of these issues the default position of the current government is not to make any real decisions.
These issues are not dealt with, and, as we witness every day, there is constant deterioration in all these areas. The main Israeli opposition parties are competing for the center, meaning that they avoid taking assertive positions of opposition and presenting genuine alternatives to the public. Additionally, as a means of delegitimizing alternatives, the ruling regime and the main opposition parties name any possible viable alternative “extreme.”
The Israeli public, or any public, does not want to view itself as extreme or identify with extreme ideas, and the push for the warm and cushy center increases. But there are issues that demand decisions, crucial and urgent decisions to address Israel’s future. The disgruntled and dissatisfied Israeli public, which is nearly half the population, does not take to the streets to voice their dismay. Political revolt as seen in other countries is usually only possible either when there is a sense that the public can affect change or when there is a leader to follow. Neither of those exist in Israel today. In meeting Israelis from all walks of life, all over the country, as I do, I present viable alternatives and options to reset Israel on course to a more secure future. Without much delay, the main question I am faced with by every audience is: where is the next leader? Who can lead Israel forward?
I don’t know the answer. I don’t think anyone does. I do know that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has to go. His leadership failures are too great for us to suffer much longer. His distorted values and lifestyle and the hatred that he brews among different sectors of Israeli society, one against the other, is rotting away the fabric of what has been good and special about Israel. Netanyahu’s unquenchable thirst to stay in power, at the cost of Israel’s future, is detrimental to our security and strength as a country and a people. From recent disclosures regarding possibilities of advancing a regional peace process we bore witness to Netanyahu’s preparedness to advance a two-state solution, only to recede, once again, into “small p” politics of sacrificing Israel in favor of paying out to the right wing within his own political party and to the Israeli settlers and religious Right.
The tyranny of the minority distorts our politics, our economy, and our future in this region. Netanyahu is first and foremost a servant to that minority. And no one from the main opposition parties seems to be able to gain the public’s confidence and sway the public behind new leadership.
I CONTEND that the lack of compelling leadership comes from the lack of compelling, believable options. Alternative leadership has the enormous task of swimming against the tide of despair which the opposition assisted in creating. Israelis want peace with their neighbors – there is no doubt in my mind about that. But both the government and the opposition have joined arms in the chorus of despair that there is no partner on the other side. It is amazing to hear the same chorus of despair on the other side, with the exact same words and the very same discourse regarding the lack of new leadership.
What is needed to break the myth of no partner is for genuine alternative leaders to build the partnership, even if this must be done from the ground up. I do not see alternative leadership when their political discourse is only one or two shades lighter than Netanyahu’s. Why do I need Amir Peretz, Avi Gabai, Omer Bar-Lev, Erel Margalit or even Yair Lapid to manage the conflict with the Arab world slightly better than Netanyahu? How can I trust the non-democratic leader of a non-democratic political party like Yair Lapid to make Israel a better and more democratic country? Lapid delegitimizes 20% of Israel’s citizens (the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel) no less than Netanyahu – how can he be our savior? I have presented opportunities to Lapid and to other MKs from his party to meet the Palestinian leadership. No way, they responded – we would lose votes! That is not leadership.
The political reality to the Left of Netanyahu is splintered and fractured over egos and severely lacking in political integrity. There is Meretz which is the only party in Israel’s Jewish world to the Left of Netanyahu which presents a real alternative, but Meretz is viewed so negatively by a majority of Israelis that it has until now failed to generate confidence as a viable leadership alternative.
Meretz is seen by too many Israelis as loving the Arabs more than Jews, as many Israelis have expressed to me. I believe that this is a totally false presentation of the truth – but images are hard to change when there is so much incitement from everyone to the Right of Meretz on the political spectrum. This is detrimental to Israel’s future. Israel needs a united democratic front with vision, presenting real and viable alternatives with proven integrity. There is no doubt in my mind that this alternative will rise and the sooner the better because we cannot take much more of the damage of our current leaders.
The author is the founder and co-chairman of IPCRI – Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives.