It is a commonplace of contemporary thought that private and public morality are two entirely separate realms, and one’s private conduct has no implications for his public behavior. And, in truth, history is full of examples of outstanding leaders whose private lives left more than a little to be desired, and the opposite.
Qualities do not always transfer from one realm to another. Ehud Barak demonstrated incredible bravery and the ability to keep his head under pressure on numerous military missions. Yet his brief tenure as prime minister was characterized by an almost total lack of both political courage and clarity of thought.
Yet the Torah does not recognize the demarcation of life into separate spheres – private and public. Everything we do is before Hashem. The just completed war in Lebanon suggests that there is often a spillover from private venality to public incompetence. Rot spreads.
Israel’s Kadima-led government is rapidly setting new records for corruption. Justice Minister Chaim Ramon has already resigned. Vice-premier Shimon Peres is under investigation for campaign contributions from American billionaire Daniel Abraham. Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and one of the first to leap from Likud to Kadima, will be indicted for making so many political appointments as Environment Minister that even Boss Tweed would have blushed.
And at the top of the pyramid of those under investigation or already indicted is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Ha’aretz reports that Prime Minister and his wife will soon be summoned by the State Comptroller to explain how they purchased a luxury apartment in Jerusalem’s German Colony for $1,500 less per square meter than the developer invested in developing the land. Among the things the State Comptroller will want to know is whether that near $500,000 windfall has any connection to the unusual zoning variances the developer obtained from cronies of the former mayor in the Jerusalem municipality.
The venality of our leaders is not limited to cases of suspected crimes. No crime was involved when Olmert offered Amir Peretz the Defense Ministry (in order to keep him away from the Finance Ministry, where it was thought he would wreak even greater havoc.) Both Olmert and Peretz knew that he was totally unqualified for the post, and that in the event of war Israel cannot afford a Defense Minister on training wheels. Forced to choose between his own ego gratification and the national interest in matters of life or death, Peretz chose the former. There is no country in the world whose politicians so brazenly proclaim their superior qualifications for the highest position currently available.
Similarly, Chief of Staff Dan Halutz’s sale of shares three hours after Hizbullah had kidnapped two soldiers from Israeli territory, killed eight others, and launched a simultaneous missile attack on nine northern communities involved no illegality. That the Chief of Staff had time to focus on his stock portfolio, while planning a war in which 150 Israelis would lose their lives and a million more would be driven from their homes, did not, however, sit well.
HAD THIS GANG LED ISRAEL to victory over Hizbullah or if Olmert’s "convergence plan" were not dead in the water, the Israeli media and justice system might have ignored its members’ private misdeeds. (That’s how things work in Israel today.) But this turned out to be the gang that could not shoot straight.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is impossible to fathom what calculus guided the government in its conduct of the war. Hizbullah’s kidnapping of two soldiers from Israeli territory was a deliberate act of mockery. The public immediately grasped that Israel’s deterrent power had worn dangerously thin, and that if Nasrallah were left in a position to claim victory, then Israel would find itself repeatedly tested by enemies from every side.
Yet the government did not fight to win. It manifestly failed to pursue a strategy that would dramatically reduce Hizbullah’s operational capacities. On the last day of fighting, Hizbullah was still able to rain 250 katyushas on Israel.
A week of exclusive reliance on air power revealed that trying to remove katyushas from the air is like trying to shoot a mosquito with a blunderbuss. Next the IDF spent two weeks in pinpoint ground actions directed at Hizbullah strongholds close to the border, even though the vast majority of katyushas were nowhere near the border. The static nature of the campaign left IDF soldiers far more vulnerable than a rolling, aggressive campaign would have.
Only after the U.N. had already convened to impose a ceasefire, after more than four weeks of fighting, did the government authorize the IDF to implement the type of major ground offensive that could lead to a clearcut victory. But by then time had run out.
Perhaps the Chazon Ish can help us understand our leaders’ blindness and lack of resolve. Someone once described a certain talmid chacham to the Chazon Ish as an "adam gadol (a great man), with only one fault -- when something touches him personally, he loses himself." The Chazon Ish rejected the characterization "adam gadol." When a person is thrall to his personal negios (interests), those negios permeate everything he does – his learning is with negios, his davening is with negios", said the Chazon Ish.
My suspicion is that a lifetime of thinking about their personal enrichment or ego gratification made it impossible for our leaders to focus on the national objectives. Their calculations of the national interest were inevitably contaminated by a whole series of political and personal considerations. The habit of continually viewing every situation through the lens of "What’s in it for me" eventually corrupts the thought processes and robs one of the ability to focus on a problem without being distracted by extraneous considerations.
Ehud Olmert made his fortune at a time when Knesset rules allowed MKs to maintain their private law practices – an almost open invitation to peddle ones public position for private gain. The cost of that rotten political culture is now clear for all to see.