A Longing for Leaders


JAFFA—So, enough already. Every morning, the radio broadcasts the list of new atrocities committed by those two horrendously obstinate old men. It makes one sick.

“Every one of these deaths is a wasted life,” my husband Shmuel says gloomily at the end of the newscast. What he means is that no matter how many of them we kill or how many of us they kill, the result is going to be the same. They know it. We know it.

By now it sounds like a platitude: There is going to be a Palestinian state.

The land is going to be divided in a way that roughly corresponds to Israel’s pre-1967 borders, give a little here and take a little there. That’s it.

It’s inevitable. So why don’t we get down to business and just do it?

First, we have to find alternatives to those two bloodstained old men, both determined not to give an inch, both aching to relive past military glories—at the expense of our children’s lives.

Most of us agree that they have to go and we’re supposed to be really smart. So why haven’t we found better leaders than Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Chairman Yasir Arafat?

Easier said than done, honey. Give me the name of one Israeli with the statesmanship and courage of Yitzhak Rabin (and we all remember what happened to him) and the charisma and stamina of David Ben-Gurion. And remember, this person also has to have backing, preferably from a major political party.

There is a smooth, charismatic guy, who has been lurking in the background for months, waiting for Sharon to stumble or show an iota of weakness. His name isn’t Voldemort, but my friends and I react the same way to any mention of him. The understatement of the year is that Bibi Netanyahu would not be an improvement on Ariel Sharon.

The Palestinians sure have plenty of eloquent speakers but not one with the guts to challenge Arafat. And even if someone had the guts, the odds would be against him. He probably would end up on the wrong end of a bullet.

They say that Israelis and Palestinians come from the same gene pool, so don’t be surprised that we’re equally bereft when it comes to potential leaders.

So, for more than 18 months, people have been walking around moaning and groaning about the need to “do something.” But we don’t. Instead we act like sheep, submissively going about our lives, trying to act as if nothing appalling is happening.

In my day (and who would believe I would ever utter those words), we’d be staging sit-ins or marching in protest on whatever passes for the Pentagon in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The most effective protest mounted in months around here was the setting up of coffins in a plaza in Tel Aviv by the Israeli and Palestinian parents of kids killed in the conflict. It was a touching display, even though there was only room for 380 coffins and a bit of a fuss about displaying the Palestinian flag. They moved the coffins to New York, where there was room for more than 1000 and no one complained about Palestinian flags. Maybe you saw it.

Oh, sure. There are the usual demonstrations and vigils on the Israeli side. On any given day you can find one outside the prime minister’s residence, another near the defense ministry, and a few at scattered highway intersections. Usually, these attract several thousand well-behaved people. At a celebrity-studded rally you can get up to 200,000 people to politely applaud the rather boring speeches.

The Palestinian method of protest is a bit different. They send their children out to throw stones at tanks or, worse, to blow themselves up, along with as many Israeli children as possible. Pretty disgusting, but they seem to think it’s effective.

And there’s the rub. Every time the Israeli peace movement begins to get what Shmuel calls “fire in their bellies,” the Palestinians pull a suicide bombing and blow away a bunch of teenage girls. Boy, does that take the steam out of the Israeli peace camp.

Our universities have produced neither a Mario Savio nor a Mark Rudd. We don’t have the Weathermen or even SDS. The problem is, most Israeli kids do their army service straight out of high school. Then they take a year off to bum around the world. By the time they get to college, they’re well into their twenties and focused on their careers, not saving the world. The only thing that seems to get their dander up is a tuition hike.

Well, everyone’s adrenaline shot up a few weeks ago when there was gossip about a “secret meeting” of the captains of industry. According to the rumor mill, all these rich guys got together to push for peace, figuring that they should have as much say about the future of the country as the settlers on the West Bank and in Gaza who demand that we “keep it all” at any cost.

Their interests were clear. Israel’s economy is in the dumps, big time. The Palestinian economy is a certified basket case. The regional economic boom, sparked by the Oslo Accords and fueled by a deluge of investment, has all but burned out.

“We have been meeting for the past few months, to see if we have the same agenda, but they are not secret meetings,” said Dov Lautman, 66, chairman of Delta Galil Industries, a textile manufacturer specializing in underwear. “And it’s not just businesspeople; there are professionals, academics, and defense guys. All people who want to do something. We are trying to find what we can do to help, to influence public opinion and, in turn, influence the politicians.

“It is not simple to influence politics in Israel,” Dov sighed. “In Israel, most politicians don’t say the whole truth or what they really believe is right for the country. They say what will help them survive politically.”

Dan Propper, the former head of the Manufacturers’ Association and current chairman of the Osem Group, which makes Israel’s favorite cookies and crackers, is not a member of that “secret” group, but he is keeping his eyes open for new talent.

“Leaders are born in hard times and if these are not hard times then I do not know what hard times are,” Dan said. “I believe that leaders are born, you can’t just nominate them. I don’t see that born leader yet. But I am an optimist—we will find someone to carry the load.

“Once that happens,” Dan said, “we in industry should be alert enough to prevent the old politicians from killing off the new ones. We must support them from the beginning, build greenhouses around them until they can stand on their own feet.”

He may be an optimist, but Dan does not think any cease-fire will bring a real peace during Arafat’s time.

“We will have to wait longer, until there is a new leadership in the Palestinian state,” he said, “and by that time we also will have succeeded here in finding new leaders.”


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