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Ehud Agonistes

Ehud Barak should forsake his arrogance, take a page from Moses, the hero of this week’s parasha, and recognize that leading can require giving up power

Liel Leibovitz
January 21, 2011
Ehud Barak at a weekly Cabinet meeting.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Ehud Barak at a weekly Cabinet meeting.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Dear Ehud,

More than a decade ago, when you took the stage at some crowded Tel Aviv banquet hall and gave your first speech as Israel’s prime minister-elect, I was standing in the back of the room, pressed against many of my friends, all of us dirty and exhausted. We had spent the previous weeks darting from street to street, putting up fliers, canvassing, doing whatever we could to convince whomever listened that you were a far better alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu. And when you won, by a landslide, we were all thrilled; after the bumbling Shimon Peres and the sinister Bibi, you were, we thought, just the man we needed. When you spoke of your election as the dawn of a new day, we believed you.

Earlier this week, as I sipped my morning coffee and watched you announce your decision to leave the Labor party, found an independent faction, and remain in Netanyahu’s Cabinet, the first thought that came to my mind was that quick, sweaty handshake you gave me as you were inching your way out of the room on the night of your victory in 1999. That evening, you had won the confidence of 670,484 Israelis, or 20 percent of voters, representing 26 seats in the Knesset. Exactly 10 years later, in your most recent electoral challenge, the numbers were very different: 334,900 votes, less than 10 percent of the voting public, 13 Knesset seats. In the course of 10 years of leadership, dear Ehud, you’ve cut your party’s electoral strength by exactly half, a disgrace very few other Western politicians can claim.

Momentous as your political failure is, it is not much of a factor in the profound and bubbling contempt I feel for you, a visceral enmity that few of your colleagues have inspired in my otherwise tranquil political imagination. Nor am I too hung up on your record as the squanderer-in-chief of precious opportunities, from peace with Syria—which you bumbled after flying to Washington, getting cold feet, refusing to disembark from your plane, and sending the Clinton Administration into a rage—to talks with the Palestinians, which you largely doomed with your impulsive, poorly thought-out decision to try to resolve a century-long conflict in two make-or-break weeks. What I resent more than anything, Ehud, is your catastrophic misunderstanding of the burdens of leadership.

You are, I know, a reader; you like to boast about having polished off James Joyce’s Ulysses in a matter of hours, a bit of bravado that seemed appealing when I was young and seems pathetic now. But take a look, then, at this week’s parasha—there’s a lesson there about leadership you cannot afford to ignore. As the story begins, Moses, groaning under the burden of being the sole leader of nearly a half-million people, is visited by his father-in-law, Jethro. The latter is quick with advice: “The thing you are doing is not good,” he tells Moses. “You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people who are with you, for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” The solution Jethro suggests is simple, and it involves deputizing competent leaders and judges and setting up a structured hierarchy.

You were preoccupied this week with emptily comparing yourself to past leaders, from David Ben Gurion to Ariel Sharon; you might want to reach further back into Jewish history and take a page from Moses. Seeing the merit in Jethro’s suggestion, Moses immediately cedes much of his own power. He understands that good governments, and good governors, are those capable of shaking the unshakable feeling that they alone know what’s best. You, Ehud, have allowed that false feeling of omnipotence to shake you.

In 2005, when you announced your return to politics, you told participants in an online Q&A that you and only you were capable of resuscitating the Labor Party, and that you anticipated winning as many as 35 Knesset seats. That never happened, and your reappointment, in 2007, as minister of defense brought with it a spirit of repression and arrogance that many close to you have decried, remembering, for example, how you had once told a well-respected and knowledgeable general who disagreed with your analysis to sit down and shut up. You treated your political colleagues with the same imperious impatience; when they disagreed with you, you accused them of being post-modern—as if Labor was manned by Jean Baudrillard and Jürgen Habermas rather than Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Isaac Herzog—and left, leaving the party to lick the wounds you yourself had inflicted.

In light of all this, you might find Moses’ behavior puzzling. In giving up his power willingly, he, after all, is the ultimate freyer, or sucker, a character trait you’ve repeatedly mocked. Maybe, then, you should skip ahead in the parasha and get to its truly astonishing part: Designating the Israelites as his chosen people, God has his own thoughts about the nature of governance. “And now,” says the Lord, “if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.”

Imagine that, Ehud—a whole kingdom of priests, a holy nation moved by the spirit, with little need for guidance and less for small men with large egos. These days, we’re seeing sparks of this utopian vision in the Middle East far away from Israel, in embattled Tunisia. As the citizens of that country fight to unburden themselves of the onus of a corrupt, despotic, and incompetent leadership, the world, for the most part, is deeply supportive. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, urged the Tunisian government to reflect “the wishes and aspirations of Tunisian people,” and the Arab League called on “all political forces, representatives of Tunisian society and officials to stand together and unite to maintain the achievements of the Tunisian people.” The word out of Jerusalem was distinctly different. Netanyahu expressed his concern about the popular uprising jeopardizing the “stability” in the region, while his deputy, the Tunisian-born Silvan Shalom, focused on the fate of the country’s approximately 2,000 Jews, as if the rest of those taking a risk and lifting their voices were negligible.

A Tunisian-style popular reform movement terrifies Netanyahu and Shalom, men whose careers are firmly rooted in the arid ground of the status quo. And I imagine it terrifies you, too: There’s little room in a kingdom of priests for bonapartes and solipsists. But the people are in the streets in Tunis, and they might soon be in the streets in Tel Aviv, too, tired of the corruption and opportunism and perfidiousness of their rotting political class. When that happens, don’t bother turning to this week’s parasha for inspiration. It would be too late.


L. Leibovitz

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.