The Prime Ministers: Chronicles of Failure

Two autobiographies, written by Israel’s only living former prime ministers, are uneven attempts to come to terms with their unremarkable legacies.

The ancient kings of Israel, we should remember, tended to come to bad ends. This, tragically, has proven to be the case for most of modern Israel’s prime ministers as well. The leaders of the Jewish state have scored enormous successes, but more often than not, they’ve pushed too far, aimed too high, succumbed to hubris, or simply been struck down by fate.  

This applies, one regrets, almost across the board. David Ben-Gurion, despite his greatness, was eventually maneuvered into irrelevancy and a marginalized retirement. Moshe Sharett was destroyed by Ben-Gurion himself. Levi Eshkol was felled by a heart attack shortly after his victory in the Six Day War. Golda Meir was demolished by the carnage of the Yom Kippur War. Yitzhak Rabin was brought down by a tangential scandal and later cut down by assassination. Menachem Begin was shattered by the First Lebanon War and became a haggard recluse. Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres both succumbed to paradigm-shifting electoral defeats. Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke. Whether a similar fate awaits Benjamin Netanyahu remains unknown, but an aura of scandal surrounds him.

Two of the most prominent failures, however, are Israel’s two Ehuds—Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. For Barak, the collapse of the Oslo Accords and the ensuing terrorist war of the Second Intifada demolished his government, and paved the way for the resurrection of the Israeli Right. Olmert bungled a war and also failed in a peace bid; finally, he went to jail in disgrace, felled by corruption charges.

Both men, coincidentally, have recently published autobiographies: Barak’s My Country, My Life and Olmert’s B’Guf Rishon (“In the First Person”). Both books are, in their different ways, records of failure: ambitions unrealized, hopes dashed, and reputations mostly in tatters. Yet the two books could not possibly be more different, and perhaps underline two of the most contentious aspects of Israeli politics—pure, if often frustrated idealism; and bitter, vindictive cynicism.

Barak’s book unquestionably represents the first of the two. While sometimes critical of his opponents, My Country, My Life is remarkably generous and high-spirited, with little trace of remonstration or anger. It is in its own way a joyous read, giving the reader a sense of what Barak might have been if he had not been frustrated by history and perhaps himself. Where was this Barak, one feels compelled to ask, when he was prime minister?

Barak’s tale begins in classic Israeli pioneer fashion on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon. He seems to have had a mostly happy childhood, even enjoying what for many others had been the traumatic experience of life in a children’s house, separated from his parents. There’s a certain élan that defines his recollections of his early years, evident in an early propensity for engineering and a predilection for stealing guns. It is an almost Tom Sawyer-like existence; however idealized his narrative might be, one feels that whatever else growing up might have been for Barak, it was probably enormous fun.

If anything truly surprises the reader, however, it is to be reminded of the depth and breadth of Barak’s military career. In his telling, it was a mere series of coincidences that led to his rise through the ranks of the Israel Defense Forces, beginning with his early recruitment into the nascent special forces unit Sayeret Matkal. Here, Barak played an active role in an array of now legendary operations: storming Sabena Flight 571, which had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists; going undercover in drag as part of Operation Spring of Youth, which targeted PLO officials and terrorists in Beirut; and even playing a tangential role in the Entebbe Raid.

Barak writes about these exploits with verve and concision; the palpable sense of excitement he creates makes this book one of the best of a spate of recently-published military memoirs. Indeed, his IDF career takes up the bulk of My Country, My Life, to its benefit. When the narrative turns to politics, one often misses the adrenaline of combat—no matter how close Israeli politics sometimes approaches the intensity of war.

The high of battle is not the only reason for the fascinating quality of Barak’s war memories. There is also his remarkable ability to convey, in clear and easily understood language, the complex and exhausting behind-the-scenes work required for military success: the planning, the training, the logistics, the intelligence, the endless man-hours invested in even the most modest of operations. This insight affords us the luxury of finally understanding that Israel’s military successes—and indeed, its failures too—derive not just from individual heroes and the bravery of those actually in combat, but the enormous mechanism that nurtures them, enables them, and makes their exploits possible.

It is on the question of Israeli-Palestinian peace, however, that one must admit that Barak’s failure was total. And it is to his credit that he makes no attempt to evade this fact.

As the book turns to Barak’s political career, however, it begins to take on the distinct aura of tragedy, or at least of ambivalent failure. Barak, it is easy to forget, was immensely popular when he was elected in 1999, and channeled the brief political consensus he had secured in three directions: the withdrawal from Lebanon, peace talks with the Syrians, and a final desperate attempt to realize the promise of the Oslo Accords.

Of these, only the first initiative proved to be at least nominally successful—although today, it seems much more like a troubling conundrum. The withdrawal from Lebanon did end the slow bloodletting of Israeli soldiers serving in the South Lebanon Security Belt. But it also handed the region over to Iran’s lackey Hezbollah, a cancer which has slowly spread throughout Lebanese society to the point that today it is effectively Lebanon’s de facto government. Barak, understandably, points to the relative quiet—with one notable exception—that has prevailed on the northern border since Israel’s withdrawal in 2000. However, every serious analyst believes another war with Hezbollah is inevitable, and that it will be Israel’s most horrendous conflict in decades. The extent of Hezbollah’s still-growing power and influence is such that it is now considered an army rather than a terrorist group. One hopes it will not come to this, but if Israel is one day forced to look back on a war with hundreds or perhaps thousands of casualties, it may view Barak’s decision in a decidedly different light. Or perhaps two decades of quiet on the northern border will prove accomplishment enough.

The Syria track must strike one, after 20 years that have seen upheaval, civil war, and mass slaughter in that benighted country, as an equally ambivalent issue. Barak makes it clear that he was willing to give up essentially all of the Golan Heights in exchange for a pledge of peace from Hafez al-Assad, the late and unlamented father of Syria’s current butcher, Bashar. There is no doubt that Assad the elder was presented with a magnificent opportunity. It is worth noting, though, that Barak does not greatly regret the ultimate failure of his efforts. Even if he doesn’t say so explicitly, one imagines that Barak is quite intelligent enough to recognize that, without the Golan, the chaos and horror of the Syrian civil war could well have threatened Israel in a far more direct manner, perhaps even forcing the Jewish state to join the fray in order to defend its northern border—a prospect with the potential to make the Vietnam War seem like a relatively benign annoyance.

It is on the question of Israeli-Palestinian peace, however, that one must admit that Barak’s failure was total. And it is to his credit that he makes no attempt to evade this fact. He freely admits that it was completely on his own initiative that he sought to fast-track this issue. He insisted, against the reluctance of President Bill Clinton, that a major summit had to be held; and at Camp David he proved willing to go beyond all of Israel’s previous red lines in order to accommodate Palestinian demands—handing over almost the entirety of the West Bank and re-dividing Jerusalem, among other major concessions. This model has proved enduring despite its failure, and perhaps not to Israel’s benefit; this may be another factor compounding the ambivalence that attaches to Barak’s legacy.

But on this particular issue, one cannot help but feel sympathy for the man. It seems clear that not only did he do everything he could to achieve peace, but indeed more than he could. One must acknowledge, after all, that it could well have proved impossible to sell such far-reaching concessions to the Israeli public. This is a moot point, of course. Yasser Arafat blew up the talks and, indeed, Israeli-Palestinian relations for a generation, by refusing what he and the Palestinians had supposedly desired for the previous three decades—statehood, independence, and a capital in East Jerusalem. And Arafat’s perfidy not only demolished peace, but also demolished Barak by inaugurating the 2000 terror wave of the Second Intifada that ultimately led to the long reign of Barak’s rival Benjamin Netanyahu, with his absolute dedication to maintaining the status quo at almost any cost.

It is on the question of the Second Intifada, however, that one must ascribe responsibility to Barak as personally responsible for his own failure. Barak reveals, with commendable honesty, that extensive intelligence even before the Camp David negotiations showed that the Palestinians were preparing for war. “After I took office,” he writes, “I’d ordered a full-scale intelligence review of the security situation with the Palestinians. The conclusion had been delivered to me six months earlier: plans were well underway by cells in the West Bank and Gaza for armed attacks against Israeli soldiers and terror strikes inside Israel.”

The terror wave, in other words, took Israel by surprise, but not Barak and his government. Here, one is forced to ask: Why did Barak fail to take the proper precautions, to display that capacity for preparation and readiness that had served him so well in the past? Why did he leave Israel open to such a devastating assault? The book fails to answer this question. We can only assume that there was a misplaced optimism on his part; the belief that in a final desperate bid for peace, he could persuade Arafat to forgo war. In this, the failure was wholly Barak’s, perhaps due to his inability to recognize Arafat’s dedication to Israel’s destruction. It was a failure of imagination, born of his belief in the possibility of peace. It did lead to disaster, but perhaps it was a noble disaster. Certainly, it was one from which Barak, for of all his talents—pressed into service later as defense minister—never recovered. Nor, one imagines, will his place in history.

The second Ehud presents a very different picture. There is little that is noble about him, and even less that is noble about his memoir. B’Guf Rishon is, one regrets to say, a laborious read: badly written, arrogant, ill-structured, laden with self-pity, self-evidently dishonest, and unremittingly bitter. It is not so much a brief for the defense of a disgraced man, as an evisceration, a literary assassination, of nearly everyone and everything that is not Ehud Olmert and his works.

First and foremost, Olmert denies that he did anything wrong, ever, at any point: not in politics, not in his financial dealings, not in his personal conduct. And this is not all. His innumerable political and ethical woes were all, he asserts, the result of one thing: a vast, insidious, omnipresent conspiracy dedicated solely to his destruction. Remarkably, this conspiracy appears to encompass both sides of the Israeli political divide. “Here, there was not just a coincidence of unexpected circumstances,” he muses while sitting in his jail cell, “but a massive effort, by elements that don’t always appear close or friendly to each other, who reached the conclusion, each for his own reasons, that the ‘Olmert government’ was dangerous to what they hold dear.”

On the right, there was Benjamin Netanyahu and his rich American supporters like Sheldon Adelson, who viewed Olmert’s dovish policies and desire for peace with the Palestinians as a danger to their ideology of eretz yisrael ha’shlema (the Complete Land of Israel). Combined with this was Netanyahu’s insatiable desire to reassume the prime ministership and his supporters’ determination to help fulfill this ambition.

But there was also, according to Olmert, a left conspiracy. One that is now commonly described as the “deep state”—the opaque and, Olmert seems to imply, near omnipotent force of Israel’s bureaucracy and judiciary. Ironically, Olmert here invokes the same boogeyman that Netanyahu has recently unleashed with regard to his own corruption woes—the claim that the unelected, unaccountable elites in the bureaucracy and legal system worked assiduously to bring about his downfall. Somewhat hilariously, Olmert attributes their motivation to his supposed incorruptibility, his refusal to bow to the deep state’s corrupt dictates throughout his career as mayor of Jerusalem (in fact, he was convicted of corruption that allegedly occurred during his tenure in this office) and then as a member of the Israeli Knesset.

That all of this is at least half-mad is unquestionable. One is constantly struck by the depth of Olmert’s denial, which given the verdict of the legal system he demonizes, cannot be regarded as anything other than a series of conscious lies. Indeed, one can’t help but think that if Olmert’s paranoid fantasy of a deep state really were true, then it did Israel a profound service by removing him from office. But one also imagines that Olmert’s paranoia expresses something real, profound, and genuinely disturbing about Israeli politics: in its impossibly complex machinations, it creates a species of Kafka-esque apparatchik whom, buffeted by inconceivably complex forces on all sides and by the constant maneuvers of friends and enemies, simply collapses into all-encompassing cynicism.

In Olmert’s telling, his conduct following his rise to the number two spot on Ariel Sharon’s new Kadima party list in 2005, and then to prime minister after Sharon’s sudden incapacitation, was noble, intelligent, discerning, and innovative throughout. He takes credit, for example, for the idea of the Gaza disengagement. (Barak, ironically, also claims at least a measure of credit for originating this idea.) Indeed, Olmert paints a portrait of Sharon as a doddering old man, worn down by age and obesity, with Olmert himself serving as a kind of shadow leader, guiding Kadima to its 2006 landslide election victory after Sharon’s stroke laid him permanently low.

Like Barak, Olmert takes pains to embrace what, for the most part, is a legacy of failure. Unlike his predecessor, however, Olmert ties himself into knots in his attempts to claim that his failures were in fact either stunning successes or near-successes, undone by the grand conspiracy against him. He hails, for example, the results of the Second Lebanon War, which he claims “changed the reality” on the ground and restored Israel’s deterrence against Hezbollah. The truth, of course, is that the war changed nothing. As noted above, Hezbollah is now far stronger than it was when Olmert supposedly decimated the organization in 2006. Nor are his protestations much comfort to the many veterans of the war who—as some have told me themselves—feel that they were used as cannon fodder in an ill-planned, incompetently conducted exercise in futility and inconclusiveness.

B’Guf Rishon is not so much a brief for the defense of a disgraced man, as an evisceration, a literary assassination, of nearly everyone and everything that is not Ehud Olmert and his works.

Also like Barak, Olmert boasts of his efforts to achieve a lasting peace with Syria. This is interesting, in the sense that the negotiations were largely unknown at the time, and are now forgotten by the Israeli public. Nevertheless, it is clear that Olmert was fully prepared to cede the Golan to Assad the younger—who, one must emphasize again, now ranks as the butcher of half a million of his own people. As with Barak, we must be grateful for Olmert’s failure, which makes his braggadocio on the subject at best ruefully amusing.

Olmert is even more effusive in describing his push to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. He spends dozens of pages describing the intricate negotiations, his personal cultivation of Mahmoud Abbas, and most of all the far-reaching concessions he was prepared to make to reach peace. It is clear that he is inestimably proud of his efforts. But in retrospect, they seem both quixotic and ill-conceived from the start.

Firstly, the concessions Olmert was prepared to make, like those of Barak, now seem to be at best reckless and at worst disastrous. Most striking was his willingness to forgo Israeli sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem and especially its holy sites in favor of shared control between Israel and several Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia. How an Israel so completely outnumbered could have possibly protected its interests—or, indeed, the Jewish right to worship at the holy sites—is frankly impossible to conceive.

Olmert’s concessionary attitude seems to have bordered on obsession. On one occasion, while hosting Abbas for a dinner at the prime minister’s residence, the Palestinian president asked Olmert for the release of 500 prisoners. Olmert said no: he would be happy to release 900.

But the charm offensive, perhaps thankfully, proved useless. Olmert himself is forced to admit that when he presented his plan for a final settlement to Abbas, a plan even more far-reaching than Barak’s, there was only silence from the other end. Olmert pushed, pulled, cajoled, even something close to begged; but answer came there none.

In this, perhaps, we may allow Olmert some sympathy, because his basic motivation for pursuing peace is, of course, quite logical: Israel cannot retain the West Bank and remain a Jewish democracy. It must become either an Arab state or an apartheid state. It was this Gordian knot that Olmert attempted to cut, and he must be given credit for the effort. Nonetheless, he refuses to accept his failure, and insists that he could have gotten a positive answer from Abbas if he had not been hounded from office. Unlike Barak, Olmert is unable to entertain the possibility that for Abbas and the Palestinians, peace may simply be undesirable. Better for them, perhaps, to simply sit out Israel, relying on their status as part of the regional majority and simple demographics to eventually give them the Arab state they desire. It is against this wall, one regrets to say, that both Barak and Olmert hurled themselves, only to shatter upon it.

On one issue, however, we must give Olmert due credit: his destruction of Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007. Here, his recollections concur with others, and it is clear that in this particular case, Olmert was resolute, determined, and unafraid of the political, diplomatic, and military consequences of defeat. Against the Bush administration’s opposition and refusal to undertake its own military action, and overruling members of his own cabinet, Olmert removed a very real and potentially existential threat to Israel. And as with the Osirak strike in Iraq three decades ago, it prevented a still greater disaster. Who knows what the current state of the Syrian civil war would be if Assad were in possession of the ultimate weapon?

This, in fact, may be Olmert’s one true success. Ironically, it is Barak’s as well, given that, as Israel’s defense minister at the time, he was deeply involved in the planning and diplomatic negotiations that preceded the attack. Barak and Olmert—of course—disagree about who should receive full credit. But in this case at least, there is glory enough for all.

What then have the two Ehuds left us? In the end, two very different legacies, as these are two very different men. Barak was, in some ways, an even greater failure than Olmert, in that his failure ushered in a horrendous campaign of terrorism. But one cannot escape the feeling that Barak’s failure was a noble one; the failure of a man of considerable integrity, who became a tragic victim due to the tragic flaws of others, in particular the hubris and racism of Yasser Arafat.

In Olmert we see a darker figure, ignoble and angry, lacking the integrity of his predecessor, but in his own way a more astute and Machiavellian political mind. In the end, Olmert succumbed to his own cynicism, which led him, perhaps inevitably, to corruption. With one glaring exception, his legacy is ashes.

If their legacies are to remind us of anything, however, it must be this: the cruelty, the ruthless efficiency, with which the realities of the Middle East and Israel’s own perilous domestic policies can lead to the undoing of the highest and lowest of men. This is a lesson that their far more successful successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, has learned quite well; indeed, this might very well be the secret of his survival. Netanyahu’s overriding ambition, after all, is surprisingly modest: to preserve the status quo by any means necessary. It is the devil we know, and change of any kind can only lead to no good.

But it is in regard to this that Barak sounds a perhaps prescient warning of the rise of an “alt-Zionism” in Israel. “Israel is facing the deepest crisis of my lifetime, and its own,” he writes. “The main threat comes from inside: from the most right-wing, deliberately divisive, narrow-minded, and messianic government we have seen in our seven-decade history. It has sought to redefine Zionism as being about one thing only: ensuring eternal control over the whole of biblical Judea and Samaria … even if doing so leaves us significantly less secure. In the past few years, it has also proven ready to erode, vilify, demonize, or delegitimize any check or criticism that might impede that goal: a free press, open debate, universities, the rule of law, even the ethical code of the Israeli military.”

This alt-Zionism led by Netanyahu, Barak says, threatens Israel’s existence by pulling us kicking and screaming into the West Bank for all time, eventually turning Israeli Jews into either an oppressed minority or a tyrant in our own land.

And in this, perhaps, the two Ehuds and their failures are most tragic, because both, in their own different ways, sought to solve this terrible dilemma. Their efforts came to naught, but in this their failure is perhaps more admirable than Netanyahu’s success. Because in Netanyahu’s refusal to admit to or face this specific dilemma, he betrays Israel’s future to secure its present. And perhaps he is right to do so. But it also makes him small, whereas the efforts of his predecessors bear the mark of the noblest and most dire of tragic flaws: the hubris that bid them fly too close to the sun, and thus fall. But for a moment, they were there in that shining warmth, a place that the cold logic and icy ruthlessness of Netanyahu will never allow him to reach. The Ehuds failed, but at least they tried. In the end, there is something in that we might even call admirable.

*Ehud Barak, My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace”, St Martin’s Press, 2018, 480pp.

*Ehud Olmert, In the First Person (Hebrew), Yedioth Books, 2018, 928pp.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

“New Hope and Yamina are not right-wing”

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki

An interview with the journalist and commentator Laly Derai about the future of the Israeli right.

A New Era in Arab-Jewish Relations?

Raef Zreik

The United Arab List's participation in Israel's ruling coalition represents Israel's preference for indirect rule over full citizenship when dealing with its Palestinian citizens.

In Defense of Nationalism

Liat Natovich Koshizky

Yoram Hazony's new book provides a welcome defense of Herzl's sophisticated understanding of Zionism and its relevance today.

No True Nationalist

Yair Wallach

Yoram Hazony's latest book distorts Herzl's ideas to provide cover for the author's exclusivist nationalism.

The Past, Present and Future of Shas

Batia Siebzehner/David Lehmann

Shas, the Sephardi Ultra-Orthodox party, has been part of Israel’s ruling coalition since 1984. What’s been the secret of their success, and what does their future hold?