Haim Shibi is Washington bureau chief of Yedi'ot Ahronot, Israel's largest-circulation daily newspaper.
For the first time in his long political life, Shimon Peres is now Israel's "Old Man," a term saved only for a father figure, and first attached to the country's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Yitzhak Rabin's death makes Peres the legitimate, the precious, bearer of Rabin's legacy. That last kiss by Peres to Rabin's cold forehead at a hospital in Tel Aviv -- along with the blood-stained piece of paper from which Rabin had sung at that fateful peace rally -- became the most powerful symbols in the country's collective political mind. The new Old Man of Israel has a shield provided not only by a double cordon of security men but also by his last minutes next to a rival-turned-partner, singing together for a better tomorrow in which the sun will finally rise on a New Middle East. As a result, Peres is no longer the punching bag of every back-bencher in the Knesset (Israeli parliament).
As he looks around him, Peres can see a circle of young men, all power hungry. Some, like Uri Savir or Yossi Beilin, he made himself, serving as their teacher and mentor. Others, like Israel's man in Washington Itamar Rabinovich, were Rabin's choice. Still others, like Efrhaim Sneh, are turncoats who started their way in one camp and moved to the other. Peres knows them all, recalls every stab in the back, every debt, every trick ever used. After all, he was the leading Young Turk in the long ago days of Mapai in 1950-65, the year Peres and Moshe Dayan followed Ben-Gurion, helping him to create a new party that soon became his political desert, the Rafi party. The Young Turks will give Peres, the last of the old Young Turks in Israeli politics, enough latitude to write his own last chapter, for nobody breathes down the neck of a survivor. At the same time, a new team is emerging now, sucked into the vacuum created by Rabin's death, and is racing toward power. Much is new in Israel's political life--but Yigal Amir's bullet did not shutter the old patterns.
There are many figures in Israel who are looking for shortcuts to power, but Ehud Barak and Haim Ramon are closing in on it, and all eyes are now on them.
THE GENERAL AND THE APPARATCHIK
In Israel, two kinds of leaders make their way to the top: the Macho General and the Smart Apparatchik. In contrast, intellectuals and academics -- Moshe Sharett, Abba Eban, Yossi Sarid, and Yossi Beilin -- can almost never propel themselves into the number-one position. If they do -- like Sharett -- they are doomed to be labeled "weak" or "not loved by the masses." Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, and Yitzhak Rabin all fit the first category of Mr. Security. In contrast, Golda Meir, Levy Eshkol, and Shimon Peres are the party-builders. Others -- notably David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, and Yitzhak Shamir -- are a mix of the two types, being underground leaders with political talents who turned into statesmen and father figures.
The military man. Tested and proven in battle, the ex-general takes a shortcut into politics, drawing on the needs of the Holocaust generation and its children for a leader whose military judgment and authority will prevent the fall of Masada. Twice, Jerusalem was destroyed. No more. When Moshe Dayan, in the first black days of October 1973, voiced fear that the Egyptians may cross the Sinai and bring the fall of the "Third Temple" -- the third destruction of Jerusalem -- Dayan became, that very day, an ex-hero who could not deliver the much-needed security blanket.The military man cannot stand the endless discussions in the party's back room, where small deals are made; he always has someone, like Rabin's Shimon Sheves, to handle that job. He has difficult relations with the press and wears the bitter scars of press attacks. Rabin's first political disaster as prime minister came in 1977 on the front page of the daily newspaper Ha'aretz, which exposed his wife's illegal bank account in Washington. Some of the generals-turned-politicians dismiss the notion of objective journalism is as nothing but a bitter joke.
The military type, in his early version, sees the new and old Middle East as a jungle that will remain so no matter what economic gains the region may witness in peace. There will be always a new arms race, a new deadly weapon, a new extreme group of terrorists, or another Qadhdhafi type. But the general can turn into an effective pragmatist. Without Sharon, Begin would have found it very difficult to wipe out Yamit, an Israel town in the Sinai that had to be evacuated before returning the land to Egypt. Dayan ("better Sharm ash-Shaykh than peace") was there for Begin when he needed an imaginative mind to conclude a peace deal with Egypt's Anwar as-Sadat. Rabin was the perfect model of them all, oh-so-reluctantly shaking hands with PLO chairman Yasir Arafat.
The party-builder. The party-builder must fulfill certain requirements. He needs endless patience and stamina to dance with the wolves at the wedding of the daughter of a party member in a small town down south. He needs the longevity to remain a Young Turk well into his forties and fifties. He needs the ability to build a new generation of his own Young Turks, which owes him favors as it becomes a leading part of the establishment. He needs to know how to maintain a system of one for all and all for one until everyone who with us gets his dream position. In a small country like Israel, this system provides a safe home and political protection. He needs a long memory -- who was with us, who was against us at those defining moments in the party's central committee. He needs to understand that people stay loyal as long as they get the benefits of loyalty. He needs very good relations with the working press and the ability to cultivate a cadre of commentators. He needs a passion for exposure, political guts, and an ability to absorb cruel and punishing political and media punches. The best of the party-builders also need a vision of Israel's future.
The differences in these two leaders' operating styles extend beyond domestic politics. The Macho General prefers to work with ex-generals, not diplomats. Even when they differ on politics, a special brothers-in-arms bond connects them through their careers. For example, for all their political differences, Rabin and Sharon continued to talk to each other, a kind of bond that gives the chills to men like Private Yossi Sarid. Further, while Rabin tended to negotiate with Syria through the chief of staff and the military, Peres has surrounded himself with civilians, the men known in Israeli political slang as the "Blazers," for they all wear single-breasted, navy-blue jackets, and are clean-cut, able, and ready. Rabin twice sent the Israeli chief-of-staff to meet with his Syrian counterpart; Peres dropped this military track and appointed one of his sharpest Blazers, Uri Savir, to oversee negotiations with the Syrians. Under Rabin, the negotiators wore uniforms; under Peres, they took off their ties.
BARAK AND RAMON
The pairing of Barak and Ramon resembles the familiar Rabin-Peres team, even while having its own distinct characteristics. They make a good and easy-to-package news story, of which they are well aware. Barak is the bold centrist, Ramon the manipulative dove. In a country shaken by political assassination, there is some comfort in their familiarity.
Ehud Barak. Military charisma lost its allure in Israel after the badly-run war of October 1973, but it is back again and Barak, at fifty-three, has it. He was a political figure while in uniform, building his myth not on ideology but on the basis of his uniform's still powerful mystique. He served as intelligence chief during the rescue of the Air France plane in Uganda in 1976, then later headed the military establishment as chief of staff. Barak is a star in a country that lost some of its self-confidence when it was hit by Iraqi Scuds and did not fire back, and that is now giving back lands to the children of the intifada.
Somebody must play Rabin's role in Israel's future; Barak took the part, and will run with it as fast as he can. The son of Holocaust survivors from East Europe, the sabra (Israel-born) Barak was raised on a kibbutz; so it was all the more striking when Barak led a group of Israeli youth in April 1992 to visit the horrors of concentration camps in Poland. As he stood there, his commando red beret on his head, in the place of ineffable Jewish weakness, Barak began to shape his image as a powerful public persona.
True to form, Barak is perceived by the press as somewhat arrogant ("Little Napoleon," according to some). Like other generals used to being (at least temporarily) pampered by the press, he does not handle criticism well. After a training accident in 1992, at which several soldiers were killed in Barak's presence, for example, my newspaper posed some hard questions about his reactions (why did military censorship block the first reports, which made known his presence at the site of the accident?). Barak responded with an all-out attack on the newspaper. (In this, he seemed to follow Sharon, for whom a journalist was invariably either "for" Sharon of "against" him, just as one was "for" the Jews or "against" them.)
True to his background, Barak treads lightly when it comes to policy and offers up pragmatic, centrist views. Indeed, Barak could have found a welcome reception in the Likud leadership, standing right alongside Benjamin Netanyahu and Dan Meridor. That he decided to fold his parachute in Labor says something about his reading (before Rabin's murder) of the political landscape: Even if Netanyahu were to lose in 1996, he will stay on as head of Likud, blocking Barak's chances to become number one.
Haim Ramon. Ramon has all the qualities of a party-builder. Born in 1950 in Jaffa, he graduated from Tel Aviv University Law School and in 1978-84 served as national secretary of Labor's Young Guard. First elected to the Knesset in 1983, he became chairman of the Labor faction in 1989 and minister of health in 1992. He resigned this position after a dispute over the National Health Bill in 1994, and, in a dramatic move, ran in July 1994 against the Labor Party's nominee for the chairman of the Histadrut, the giant but sick trade union, a vestige of the days of real Israeli socialism.1 In the wake of the Rabin assassination, he returned to Labor and joined the cabinet in November 1995.
They divided the cake very carefully, the "gang of eight" young political talents in the Knesset which Ramon and Beilin led and on which they built as a power base over the last ten years (among them: Yael Dayan, Amir Peretz). Avrom Burg took the Jewish Agency. Ramon took the Histadrut with guts and glory. Ramon had a lot to say on other matters of vital national importance as well. Blue-eyed and baby-faced, Ramon at forty-five has proven he can cook in any kitchen, no matter how hot. Ramon was leading get-to-know-them meetings with PLO operatives when that was not yet an acceptable practice. His ability to walk out on a cabinet post and build his very own power base as chairman of the Histadrut was a defining moment of truth for both him and the system. While Ramon promised to clean up the mess there, he never got close to finishing the job. He walked away from the trade union and from his promises to the voters to stay as Histadrut's chairman at least until 1996, instead becoming Peres's interior minister. On the night when Shimon Peres told the party who would be what in his new government, Peres for a split-second forgot to mention Ramon. Ramon, just back in the arms of his party, turned pale. The old fox had his moment of fun. After all, Ramon, at one time or another, had walked out on him, too. That, also, is part of Ramon's political identity as a party-builder: he is too much the politician. Peres suffered from this reputation and even at his advanced age is still working to prove that he is a statesman.
The "political twins" pattern in Israel's politics is a steady one -- but it also changes with the lessons of the past. Rabin and Peres learned to join forces only in the last chapter of their hate-filled relationship. In contrast, Barak and Ramon should work well together. They start with a partnership of convenience; the changes in Israel's election system (if not amended again) force the two into each other's arms. To obtain the party's nomination for a seat in parliament, candidates will have to win a place on the party list in open primaries. The prime minister will no longer be selected by the party with a plurality but elected directly by the country's voters.
In these new circumstances, the apparatchik needs the general to kosher his security credentials as he sets off in a head-to-head confrontation with the opposition candidate. The general needs the party-builder more than ever to control and lead a bunch of scared parliamentarians who, for the first time, must perform in the media and make their own headlines to get reelected. Without a general and a party-builder, and without their cooperating, the party may go to the bitter cold of the opposition. In a winner-takes-all match, fighting between the two types becomes too costly for the party to countenance.
Similarly, the Likud Party will find it difficult, but not impossible, to find its own new-and-improved team. David Magen is the new, improved David Levi. Dan Meridor is a made-in-Israel version of Moshe Arens. The aging Sharon is still around to provide all the machismo needed, but Young Turks like Limor Livnat or Tzahi Hanegbi are making the news. The professional apparatchiks, like Roni Milo (mayor of Tel Aviv) and Ehud Olmert (mayor of Jerusalem) are waiting in their municipal castles for Likud's better days. In a New Year's shopping spree, Likud managed to add Itzhak Mordechai, a new ex-general, to its list. Mordechai apparently visited Peres first, to check his options; when not offered a cabinet post, he opted for Likud and the promise of becoming Bibi's minister of defense.
Whether generals or apparatchiks, the newcomers are political technocrats interested in power, not ideas or policies. When the ex-general takes the pragmatic road, he does so for a price. His place in government--now or in the future--or his place in history. If Ehud Barak gives Shimon Peres the blessing for a quick deal with Syria's Hafiz al-Asad, he will do so on his own terms. The party leader always (even when a father figure) depends on the macho type of the day. Meir wore Dayan's now forgotten charisma as the shining jewel in her crown. Begin followed Sharon into the Lebanon quagmire and to his own political demise. Shamir leaned heavily on Rabin in the early days of the intifada. Ramon would not be able to rule and lead without Barak's dare-devil ex-commando myth now being promoted in Israel and the United States.2 Barak is clearly the most effective answer Labor can put against Likud leader Netanyahu's fight-terror-now approach. If things go wrong in Arafat's Palestinian Authority, Israelis are likely to turn to the generals to fix things up.
There is one more lesson that both the Macho General and the Smart Apparatchik will follow closely: befriend Washington. Rabin paved the way here. Sharon was never the most loved persona in the American capital -- and paid the price. Shamir took a sleeping pill on his way to see George Bush but even without jet-leg could not generate much warmth, and the Israeli man on the street took note of Shamir's difficulties with Bush and James Baker. The question in any direct race to the prime ministership will be not only "How safe can you make it for us?" but also "How close can you get to the White House and the Congress?"
Made to order and easy to cast, Barak, Beilin, Ramon, and Sarid are all part of the new Labor-Meretz team that makes Israel still the most stable and predictable state in the Middle East. Who will lead after Asad, King Husayn, or Husni al-Mubarak? No one knows. But after Peres, the Barak-Ramon team will try to translate its promised resemblance to the Rabin-Peres "good old days" into power and votes.
The father figure traditionally does not "feel the pain" of his opposition. Ben-Gurion was not soft on Begin as they both emerged from the underground days. Begin labeled Labor's kibbutzim, the collective farms, as bastions of the good life, using cheap dark-skinned, Sephardi labor form nearby development towns. Shamir was not a lover of Peace Now and its friends in America. Rabin was tough on the settlers. At the same time, Ben-Gurion and Begin both took great care not to push the religious camp out into the cold. Ben-Gurion's alliance with the Orthodox camp gave Labor many years of broad political base. Peres is now doing just that. One can already hear angry voices in the left, first accusations against Peres for a "sell out" to those who mix their God with politics. But Peres, the old political fox that he is and always was, is playing the healer. He saw it all, he knows it all, Peres can now afford to be Peres.
1 On the importance of Ramon's actions, see David Wurmser, "Israel's Collapsing Labor Party," Middle East Quarterly, pp. 42-44.
2 For example, U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 25, 1995/Jan. 1, 1996, listed Barak as one of the "changemakers and trendsetters to watch in the year ahead."