Forgotten Virtues of Leadership

Waves of nostalgia seemed to sweep over Israel for Menachem Begin and his leadership, on the 15th anniversary of his death, last week.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on February 27, 2007.)

Waves of nostalgia seemed to sweep over Israel for Menachem Begin and his leadership, on the 15th anniversary of his death, last week. Like any political leader, of course, he had his fanatic followers and his bitter opponents. And during his long career, he was greatly admired by many but also much maligned. But memories of his leadership cast a giant shadow over the country’s political leaders of recent years. It is not only his followers who wish that somebody like him were at the helm in these trying days.

What was it about Begin’s leadership? In addition to his great intellectual and rhetorical skills, he was guided throughout his adult life by a sense of mission. Whether as commander of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi, in the fight against British rule in Palestine, or as leader of the opposition during his many years in the Knesset, or during the seven years he served as prime minister, Begin was always imbued with the feeling that he was serving the Jewish people and the State of Israel and that a giant responsibility rested on his shoulders.

Upon stepping into the prime minister’s office, on June 20, 1977, Begin felt that now the fate of the Jewish people lay in his hands. The picture of the little Jewish boy with the raised hands passing before a German soldier in the Warsaw Ghetto was on his desk throughout his years in the position. And when on August 28, 1984, Begin told his colleagues at the cabinet table of his intention to resign, and responded to their insistent protests by telling them that he could not go on anymore, it was clear that at that moment he felt the responsibility had become more than he could carry. Therein lies the answer to the frequently asked question of why Begin resigned: He resigned when he felt that he could no longer bear the burden of responsibility.

The view that the leadership was a responsibility entrusted to them by the electorate was common to all of Israel’s first generation of leaders, from David Ben-Gurion to Yitzhak Shamir. It was true of Yitzhak Rabin, who on the eve of the Six-Day War felt momentarily that the responsibility of being the head of Israel’s armed forces was too much for him.

In recent years, Israel’s leaders, both those who have aspired to the position of prime minister and those who have attained it, have shouldered the burden much more lightly. Many seem to see the position as just another station in their career. This view, no doubt, impairs their ability to adequately perform the task. Important decisions are made too lightly, important appointments made too casually and, of course, no mistakes are ever acknowledged.

Begin had a statesmanlike view of the civil service. He believed in appointing people on the basis of merit. He continued to work with people appointed to office during the Labor Party’s tenure in office, such as Simcha Dinitz, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, if he considered them capable. He did not believe that membership in the Likud’s Central Committee entitled one to jobs in the government. The handing out of jobs to members of the Likud’s committee, and worse yet, to those faithful to particular camps in the Likud, was totally foreign to Begin’s conception of a government worthy of the people of Israel. He would have never stood for it, nor would Shamir, his successor.

The deterioration in the Israeli political scene is in no small measure the result of this kind of patronage and influence-peddling, which began after Shamir left the Prime Minister’s Office. At first it was restricted to the lower levels of government service, but then it continued right up to the top positions. The limit was reached when, for the first time in Israel’s history, an IDF chief of staff was booted out, so that one seemingly more amenable could be appointed.

Begin was a modest man. Modest in his demeanor and in his style of living. Like his predecessors and his immediate successor. That, too, seems to have become a forgotten virtue in Israel in more recent times.

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