Malaise and Concern: Losing Faith in the Leadership

Malaise and Concern: Losing Faith in the Leadership

Frustration over the outcome of the war with Hizballah led many Israelis to question their new generation of leaders. With the incapacitation of Sharon and the marginalization of Peres, the generation of the founders of the state was now being replaced with a new generation of younger and less historic figures. Many of the political figures who emerged into leadership roles with the 2006 election were first tested by the Hamas and Hizballah raids and fighting of that summer.

The older leadership, mostly East European immigrants and their offspring or protégés, that had comprised the elite of the Yishuv in the period of the Palestine Mandate and the State of Israel in its first decades was being replaced by a generation generally born, or at least raised, primarily in Israel itself. This new leadership was increasingly ethnically different (for example, President Moshe Katsav was born in Iran and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz in Morocco) and ideologically more diverse.

The generations of the socialist (labor-oriented) founders were being replaced by a more capitalist, free-market-oriented group with a different style of political leadership. Much of the older leadership had risen through the ranks of the labor movement, the political parties, the kibbutz movement, or the military. In contrast, the new generation of leaders is as likely to come from the private sector as from the traditional parties. While Peretz is from the labor movement, Olmert was previously a lawyer in private practice, although he served as both a member of the Knesset and mayor of Jerusalem before becoming prime minister.

Public opinion polls suggested that most Israelis regarded the older generation of leaders as more competent than the current one when queried after the war with Hizballah. There seemed to be both displeasure and disappointment with the newly chosen leadership of the state.Polls also suggested that there was a significant decline in the support for and positive view of the IDF and its senior leadership, an unusual occurrence in Israel.

The IDF had always been viewed as the country’s premier and most-esteemed institution, but now it came under close scrutiny for its “failures” in combat and deficiencies of leadership and its need to launch a significant investigation of itself.

Among reserve officers there was anger and criticism of military commanders and civilian leadership for insufficient equipment and supplies during the hostilities and a tentativeness and insufficiency on the battle plan and the approach to the fighting.Many Israelis saw this as a war that Israel did not “win,” with all the implications that had for Israel’s ability to deter its enemies. A loss of confidence in the senior military or political leadership was not unprecedented, but both at the same time was unusual, and the lack of confidence persisted long after the hostilities had ended.

Further aggravating this loss of faith in the country’s leadership were a number of scandals involving the president and other senior figures on charges of corruption and immorality. In mid-October 2006, a joint statement by the Justice Ministry and the police said there was evidence that President Moshe Katsav committed “rape, aggravated sexual assault, indecent acts without permission and offenses under the law to prevent sexual harassment” against several women in his office.

According to the police, the inquiry also found evidence that the president had committed fraud and was engaged in illegal wiretapping. In January 2007, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decided to indict the president, and Katsav recused himself from official duties. In a statement, Katsav’s office said: “The President reiterates and emphasizes that he is a victim to a low plot spun against him and . . . it will be proven that the allegations against him are false stories and a lie, and the truth will be brought to light.”

Fallout after the War: Domestic Politics

In light of the public’s criticism and the increasing threat posed by Iran, Olmert had to rethink the nature of his government. He saw that he needed to expand and reinforce the coalition. Although labor was an important partner, it had lost respect during the war due to the insistence of its leader, Amir Peretz, that he keep the portfolio of defense minister, a post for which he was not well qualified. Eventually, Olmert turned to the right.

On Monday, October 30, 2006, Prime Minister Olmert won the approval of Israel’s cabinet for the parliamentary faction Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel, Our Home), founded in 1999 and led by Avigdor lieberman, to join the government. lieberman would become a deputy prime minister with special responsibility for strategic issues, primarily focusing on the potential threat from Iran.

Yisrael Beiteinu is a right-wing party that advocates annexation of parts of the West Bank and the transfer of some Arab towns in Israel to a future Palestinian state. Its leader, Avigdor lieberman, immigrated to Israel from Moldova in the Soviet Union in 1978 and lived with his family in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim. He held strong views about the future of the West Bank and was widely known for his provocative proposals and statements (for example, supporting the death penalty for Arab parliamentarians who met with Hizballah or Hamas, both classified as terrorist groups by Israel).

He retained wide popularity among Soviet immigrants to Israel. lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu were opposed to a withdrawal from the West Bank (and earlier from the Gaza Strip). lieberman suggested instead that there be a swap between Israel and the Palestinians in which Israel would keep portions of the West Bank with its Jewish settler population and trade portions of Israel that had a large Arab Israeli population, reducing the number of Arabs in Israel.

Olmert’s ability to have Yisrael Beiteinu join the government while retaining the participation of labor was an important achievement— given the long-standing and often acrimonious differences between the two parties. By co-opting Yisrael Beiteinu, the government gained the support of its 11 seats in the Knesset. This increased to 78 (out of 120) the number of seats supporting the coalition in parliament, a substantial majority.

The ability of lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu to join the coalition government was facilitated, in a curious twist, by the lebanon War and the links between Hizballah and Iran. In light of the events in the Gaza Strip and southern lebanon, many Israelis questioned the logic of relinquishing West Bank territory.In January 2007, Dan Halutz, chief of staff of the IDF, tendered his resignation, becoming the first IDF chief of staff to voluntarily resign. He cited the internal probes of the Second lebanon War as his main reason for resigning and said that he was taking full responsibility for the war.

In late May, Israel’s labor Party ousted its populist leader, Amir Peretz, who had also been sharply criticized for his role as defense minister during the 2006 lebanon war. In the first round of elections, former prime minister Ehud Barak and a former head of Shin Bet (General Security Service) Ami Ayalon emerged as the two top candidates. In mid-June, Barak defeated Ayalon, returning to his former position as leader of the labor Party.

President Moshe Katsav resigned on July 1 after pleading guilty to several counts of sexual harassment and indecent acts, in exchange for which charges of rape were dropped. In June, Shimon Peres, a member of the founding generation and a distinguished statesman, was elected the ninth president of Israel.

This was widely seen in Israel and beyond as bringing honor to public life and as a corrective to much of the malaise of the previous year. As Haaretz noted in an editorial on June 16, 2007: “No one is better suited to restore the dignity of the presidency in the world’s eyes and to represent Israel.”In August 2007, Benjamin Netanyahu was reelected as leader of likud, easily defeating Moshe Feiglin, thus increasing the probability that Netanyahu would again seek to become prime minister in the next Israeli national election.

Iran as an Existential Threat

With its strong natural and human resource base, Iran had increasingly emerged as a powerful state in the Middle East. In Israel’s view, the international community had to prevent Iran from achieving the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Israel saw Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel and a threat to world peace.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had sustained a rhetorical campaign against Israel, labeling Israel “illegitimate” and calling for its destruction. He had said Israel had been “imposed” on the region and could not survive. He had described the Holocaust as a “myth” and stated that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” Ahmadinejad labeled Israel the cause of 60 years of war, 60 years of displacement, 60 years of conflict, and not one day of peace.

He argued that the Palestinian people should decide their fate and the “people with no roots” who are ruling the land should be replaced: “Israel currently occupies Palestine. Where did they come from? They should return.”When Hizballah forces launched an attack on Israel and then, in response to an Israeli counterattack, showed that they had been well prepared by Iran (and Syria) for their military role, the threat to Israel posed by Iran became more tangible.

At the same time, the war also led to something of a de facto alliance of perspective between Israel and some Arab states, who had become more concerned about the potential threats posed by a powerful Iran than they were about the threats posed by Israel. Israeli concerns also dovetailed with those of the United States and some European states that saw Iran as developing a nuclear capability leading to a nuclear weapon, even though Iran claimed the program was purely peaceful with energy as its primary objective.