Can Ehud Olmert fill the vacuum left by the mighty Ariel Sharon? This is the question that Israelis, and indeed, people all around the world, are currently asking. After all, Acting Prime Minister Olmert, likely winner of the upcoming March 28 elections, has no serious military background. And in a country besieged by terrorist, guerrilla, conventional and nuclear threats, the conventional wisdom is that only a former general at the top can reassure Israelis consumed by a desire for security. A look at the history of the Israeli premiership in the last four decades, however, suggests that maybe Israel actually could be better off with a civilian calling the shots, particularly one with the self-confidence to stand up to the generals.
In 1963, Levi Eshkol succeeded David Ben-Gurion as prime minister, and Israelis could feel the change immediately. In contrast to the passionate, revolutionary leadership style of Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state, Eshkol introduced a fresh air of moderation. He abolished the military rule over Israeli Arabs, who, since independence, had been watched carefully by the security establishment as potential enemies. Without talking much about it, Eshkol conveyed the message that in a Jewish and democratic state, everyone should be equal. Then, following terrorist attacks by the Palestinians, he reacted with restraint. “The notebook is open and the hand is writing,” he said after one such attack, meaning that a strong, self-assured country like Israel should not react in a knee-jerk way. People misinterpreted this as weakness and ridiculed his dictum by turning it into “the notebook is open and the hand is trembling.”
Then came the Six Day War, which Eshkol tried in vain to prevent through diplomatic means. (Playing “if” in history is a tricky game, but still: If the war had been averted, wouldn’t Israel, in hindsight, have been better off?) The army pressed for war. And Israelis, who felt that in such a crisis, Eshkol, the “civilian,” was not strong enough, fetched war hero Moshe Dayan to stand next to him at the helm. Eshkol died a bitter man: first, for failing to prevent the war, and second, feeling robbed of the laurels of victory by Dayan.
This was only one in many incidents in which civilian leaders capitulated to the military, only to regret it later. Golda Meir, who was on her way to retirement, was called on by the Labor Party bosses to replace Eshkol. Another civilian at the top — except that she bowed to the generals, whose complacency caused Israel to be taken by surprise in the Yom Kippur War. When later blamed for the blunder, Golda moaned: “What do you want from me? My instincts told me there was going to be a war, but all those generals told me the opposite.”
Menachem Begin was another civilian prime minister. In 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem, the army’s chief of staff, General Mordechai Gur, warned Begin that it was “a bluff.” Begin ignored him and signed the peace treaty with Israel’s greatest enemy, thus securing for himself a place beside David Ben-Gurion in the pantheon of Israel’s great leaders. In 1982, however, he chose to listen to another general, his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, whom he admiringly called “The greatest Jewish war hero ever.” The result was the mess in Lebanon, which brought about Begin’s downfall. Since then, Israeli prime ministers have been either people who had been involved in security affairs all their lives (Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres), had a distinct military background (Benjamin Netanyahu) or were famous generals (Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Sharon).
The time has come for civilians to lead Israel once again, and Ehud Olmert is the man to inaugurate this era. Able and decisive, he has more than three decades of political experience, including high ministerial positions in several governments. As a two-term mayor of Jerusalem — perhaps the world’s most difficult city to govern — his sense of reality has been sharpened in a world that is more than just a battlefield. Having a broader perspective than generals who were schooled in conflict, my guess is that before Prime Minister Olmert orders a large-scale military operation, he also might think of world public opinion, tourists who might cancel their trips to Israel and other “civilian” considerations.
Furthermore, social issues recently have gained much more prominence on the Israeli agenda, and Olmert, who as finance minister recently has shown his seriousness in tackling them, might be the right man to address the growing inequalities in Israeli society, which threaten the country no less than terrorism or the intifada.
Olmert, then, might pick up the torch that four decades ago fell from the hands of Levi Eshkol, a civilian prime minister who was clearly ahead of his time. But will Israelis accept the leadership of Olmert the civilian? I’m sure they will. In 1969, before Golda Meir became prime minister, only 4% of Israelis believed that she was fit for the job. Later, only few weeks after taking over, she enjoyed an approval rating of 60%. People grow with the job, then, and Olmert has all the qualities to rise to the occasion. He should, however, take the words of his generals with a grain of salt and listen to his own “civilian” instincts, which have brought him to this historic moment.
Uri Dromi is the director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute, located in Jerusalem. He was chief spokesman for the Israeli government under prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.