To escape endless elections, Israel needs a new generation of ‘naïve’ leaders
What do the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the climate crisis have in common?
The answer is troubling: neither of these existential issues is on the political agenda of the current election campaign in Israel.
Israeli voters have left the climate crisis to the good care of foreign leaders. And they’ve let their own leaders sweep the Palestinian issue under the rug. On the right, there is no genuine discussion regarding the implications of the ongoing control over a foreign people without rights. The center adheres to the “conflict management” mantra, ignoring the fact that it is a cover for further annexation, and the left is afraid of being obliterated electorally if they unapologetically wave the banner of a two-state solution.
The collective denial of these unsettled predicaments will not only haunt us, but also exact a high price.
Why have we turned away from real engagement with these decisive issues of our time?
The lack of political stability and the short intervals between recent election cycles have given primacy to short-term considerations, increasing a political focus on catchy, empty slogans. In such an atmosphere, telling the truth that lives in the candidate’s heart is a luxury reserved for so-called “naïve” leaders, not for those whose only wish is to secure every possible vote. This grim reality underscores today’s lack of those “naïve” leaders who are loyal to their principles and willing to fight for their true beliefs — and for tough, necessary policy decisions.
For almost 30 years, I was blessed to assist such a leader: Shimon Peres.
Like any other politician, Peres wanted public approval, and went to great lengths to win the media’s favor. But he was fundamentally unwilling to adjust his worldview according to the degree of public sympathy it would generate. His vision of peace was not conceived as a formula for gaining popularity.
Peres knew that if he played the strings of hatred and suspicion of the outsider, it might be easier to win the public’s support. He understood well that when he argued that the Arab enemy was capable of changing its stripes and living with us in peace, he was perceived by large swaths of the Israeli public as gullible, someone willing to ignore a conventional axiom: never trust the intentions of the other.
Despite this, when he had to choose between public admiration and being true to his convictions, he followed his vision. Peres preferred to ignite hope and was willing to contend with the wrath of many — not to mention the literal tomatoes thrown at him.
After assisting Peres in his political efforts, I wrote a book about him. During one interview for it, I asked him to describe how he felt about the great popularity he had gained as president. “I had to pass through seven circles of hatred and contempt, and I did not despair,” he said.
“You throw a stone in the water and the water changes slowly. So, I am changing the topography.”
Since Peres’ death in 2016, no significant political leader has emerged in Israel who is willing to brave the wilds of public opinion in pursuit of a vision for achieving peace and vigorously shaping a better future.
It is not for nothing that Peres’ legacy is not mentioned in the current election campaign. The leaders of the camp that wishes to end the political right’s rule fear that if they follow in Peres’ footsteps, they will be stigmatized, like him, as “naïve.” They are making a common mistake.
It is not naïve to believe, as Peres, did, that true leaders must take on their roles determined to usher in change.
It is not naïve to commit to the long and tedious processes necessary to create change on any charged issue, particularly ones, like the environment and occupation, of existential significance.
It is not naïve to face opponents and the doubtful among your constituents with courage.
Armchair theorists may philosophize that like the global climate crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be ripe for resolution only when the parties are convinced that the price of its continuation is much steeper than the price of resolving it. The dreadful implication of this steely-eyed diagnosis is that yet more bloodshed and suffering is needed for the parties to reach any agreement.
In order to avoid that terrible price, Israeli leaders must show courage and break through the bars of the short term, abandon meaningless slogans and return the serious issues of the day to the top of the national agenda. For all this, Israel desperately needs “naive” leaders like Shimon Peres.
Avi Gil is a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute, author of “Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East” and a former Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs .