Floyd Patterson recidivus
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 15, 2000
Floyd Patterson reigned as heavyweight champion for most of the 1950s. The lustre of his crown, however, was severely tarnished by the fact that he assiduously avoided for almost that entire period the number one contender, Sonny Liston. As it turned out, Patterson’s reticence was well-founded. His two fights with Liston lasted less than five minutes all total.
I was reminded of Patterson last Saturday night while listening to Prime Minister Barak’s dramatic resignation announcement. Two weeks ago, Barak boldly proclaimed in the Knesset, "I already beat Bibi, and I’m not afraid of him. The possibility of resigning in order to neutralize him did not even pass through my mind for a single moment.’’ Apparently polls showing Netanyahu nearly twenty points ahead caused formerly forbidden thoughts to lodge in Barak’s brain.
Barak explained in his resignation announcement that he seeks a new "mandate’’ from the people. Unanswered, and unanswerable, was the question: How can one claim a "mandate’’ on the basis of an election in which one’s most formidable opponent is barred from running?
Netanyahu was only one of the opponents from who Barak was fleeing. Weighing heavily in his decision to resign was the whithering public criticism from Chaim Ramon, his own Interior Minister, just two days earlier. Barak correctly read those remarks as a signal that his days as head of the Labor Party were limited, and that party elders had decided that if they were going to be crushed better to go down nobly behind the banner of someone they at least like. By calling a snap election, Barak successfully prevented anyone within the party from mounting a challenge.
A third factor driving Barak was the realization that the dawdling police investigation of the fictitious non-profit organizations was coming to life and that he would soon be deprived of his last issue against Netanyahu – the latter’s ethical lapses. Yitzchak Herzog, Barak’s cabinet secretary and the central figure in the scandal, recently refused to answer investigator’s questions, as had Barak’s once and future campaign media guru, Tal Zilberstein, and Barak’s brother-in-law Doron Cohen before him.
Herzog claims that there is no place for a police investigation because the campaign financing laws did not apply to prime ministerial campaigns. He has not explained, however: If the campaign finance law did not apply, why was it necessary to create dozens of fictitious non-profit organizations, issue fake receipts and suborn perjury from those called as witnesses by the State Comptroller?
By tendering his resignation in order to foreclose Netanyahu, Barak gave new meaning to the phrase "stinking manuever’’ first coined to describe Shimon Peres’ attempts to buy MKs votes to bring down the national unity government and resurrected in 1994 when two Tsomet MKs were bribed to pass Oslo II. He thereby reinforced the major lesson of the last two governments: there is absolutely no connection between intelligence, the ability to manipulate words and symbols, and wisdom; the former is largely innate, the latter is a moral quality.
No country in the world can boast of successive leaders with higher IQs than Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Yet 18 months after being elected with 56% of the vote, and after taking office with nearly two-thirds of the Knesset in his coalition, Barak finds himself in exactly the same situation as did his predecessor: deserted by his former allies, trusted by no one, ridiculed in the press, and plummeting in the polls.
To be sure, the dysfunctional Israeli political system and coalition politics contributed to the premature fall of both men. And some of their failures have been intellectual, not just ones of character. Barak, for instance, seems capable of thinking only in tactical terms – single-mindedly focused on one objective at a time – the trait that allowed Natan Sharansky to defeat him in seven moves in chess.
Yet the failings of both Netanyahu and Barak have been primarily ones of character. "Multiply advice and increase wisdom’’ our Sages teach. Both men, however, attributed to themselves such unique insight and analytical ability that they felt little need to consult with anyone else. No one knows, for instance, on what basis Barak concluded, contrary to all Israeli strategic doctrine for thirty years, that the Jordan Valley rift is no longer vital to Israel’s defense.
By the end of his term, Netanyahu was not trusted by anyone in his own cabinet, and Barak has done no better. His ministers, closest associates, and ostensible allies find out about each new shift in policy together with the rest of the country. A politician does not have to be universally beloved, as Ma’ariv’s Amnon Dankner pointed out, but there must at least be someone who likes and trusts him. Since the summer, Barak has been deserted by the director and deputy director of the prime minister’s office, as well as his highly regarded media advisor.
Barak is Israel’s most decorated soldier and Netanyahu served under him in a crack anti-terrorist unit. Yet their unquestioned physical bravery has not translated into political courage. Barak, like Netanyahu before him, gives the impression of being completely driven by events rather than controlling them. True, his self-confidence appears unshaken, even delusional, but time after time it has been revealed to be all bluff and bluster. From the first, he has shown no ability to resist pressure from his American patron, who worked so hard to ensure his election.
The root problem appears to be that neither man has a higher goal than attaining and retaining power. (Note to Bibi: I hope that you are spending as much time thinking about what you will do if and when you are elected, as to how to get elected.)
Netanyahu, according to Daniel Pipes, was prepared to sign away virtually the entire Golan Heights to win reelection. And Barak’s zig-zags – the on-again, off-again secular revolution, his inability to decide for two successive days whether Arafat is a negotiating partner or not – have become grist for the comedians’ mill.
In our current state of desperation, Israelis would be prepared to forgive their prime minister a great deal, if only they felt he believed strongly in something and had a clear vision of how to get there. Alas, their leaders have given them little cause for confidence on that score.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
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