Israelis Lose Faith in New Generation Of Leaders

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 17, 2006

JERUSALEM, Sept. 16 -- Frustration over the outcome of the war in Lebanon has spurred many Israelis to question the abilities of a new class of political professionals who are stepping into roles long held by the men and women who founded the Jewish state.

The mostly East European immigrants who brought Israel into being are steadily ceding power to a more ethnically and ideologically diverse generation raised here. Now the uncertain aftermath of the first war to be managed by a prime minister from outside Israel's founding generation -- Ehud Olmert, a 60-year-old lawyer elected this year -- has sharpened debate over whether the best of the new generation are entering public life.

"How have we left our leadership to such mediocre people?" said Eliad Shraga, 46, head of the nonpartisan Movement for Quality Government in Israel who staged a nearly three-week hunger strike outside Olmert's office after returning from reserve duty in the Lebanon war. "We are asking ourselves how this has happened to us."

Olmert and others of his political generation embody a leadership shift that highlights the Jewish state's changing values and demographics.

Israel's original socialist character has evolved into a more free-market economy and less centralized government. The private sector and town councils are turning into training grounds for new political leaders, who once emerged largely from the labor movement, the kibbutz collective-farm enterprise and the military. There are more former mayors than generals in Olmert's cabinet, which also includes ministers from university faculties and the secret services.

But prospective Israeli leaders have found the diverse economy more attractive than public life, a notoriously treacherous arena given the country's cutthroat political culture. Israel's mainstream political leadership now consists mostly of pragmatic men and women who have made politics their profession -- a sharp contrast to the ideological volunteers, shaped by persecution, who founded Israel nearly six decades ago.

Historians and sociologists describe the change as the kind of natural evolution that occurs in most countries. But it is proving more complicated here because of Israel's unique circumstances -- a state still defining its borders, in a region where many countries dispute its right to exist.

"A nation cannot always be in a revolutionary spirit," said Ephraim Yaar, a professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University who runs the Evens Program in Mediation and Conflict Resolution. "People want to live normal lives. But in some ways, Israel cannot give up this spirit because of the peculiar existential threat it faces. We are still in the process of nation-building."

Isaac Herzog, the 46-year-old tourism minister, is one of Israel's political "princes."

His father, Chaim Herzog, built Israel's military intelligence agency before serving as ambassador to the United Nations and the country's president. His grandfather was Israel's first chief rabbi, and one of his handwritten prayers for the new state hangs on Herzog's office wall.

As a boy, Herzog's neighbors in Zahala, a suburb of Tel Aviv, included Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, hero-generals of the wars and political battles that helped define the modern state.

"My father and his compatriots focused on security and the economy, but I became interested early on with talking to the Palestinians and in issues like the environment and human rights," said Herzog, who speaks Arabic.

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