Commentary Magazine


Looking for Leaders in All the Wrong Places

One of the weirdest aspects of Israeli politics in the last few years has been the sudden rush of prominent journalists to throw their hat in the ring. One of the biggest names in the past decade was Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, who capped off decades of radio, television, and print media punditry to become the leader of the secular-liberal-but-capitalist Shinui party, a flash in the pan that earned Lapid a government ministry before the party imploded under the weight of a scandal. Then there was Shelly Yecimovich, who was probably Israel’s most prominent radio talkshow host before joining the Labor party in time for the last election.

For this election, however, the floodgates have been opened, with big names like Gideon Reichel and Uri Orbach joining the fray. Orbach, who is joining the new religious-right party Jewish Home, published a farewell column in Ynet giving his reasons for taking the plunge. He writes:

Why am I doing it? Not just because I feel like it all of a sudden, and not because they asked me to join a week ago (well, sure, of course this is also a reason. Let’s not be a hypocrite here.) The main answer to this question happens to be: “Because!”

Because I feel like making an impact in a different way. Because sometimes one needs to make a decision and go for it without thinking too much about what other people will say.

Because after all it is easier to be a journalist for 25 years and criticize the whole world, yet when you are asked to join public service in line with the views you endorse say that right now is not a convenient time, because you need to pick up your kid from kindergarten.

Orbach’s column unintentionally shows us what exactly is so troubling about pundits going into politics. What makes a pundit successful is the clarity of his views, his eloquence and persuasive power. The magic is not necessarily in his ability to know the right answer, but in the chemistry between his answers and the thinking of his audience. He makes himself sound really smart to enough people.

But this sounds like the classic description of the demagogue. What is missing here is actual experience in decisionmaking, actual responsibility in the past, or any kind of real-world record by which to judge his judgment. If Israelis suffered for too long from having their political ranks filled with ex-generals — people who are too used to getting what they want and have little experience weighing interests and egos in their dealings — now they seem to be looking for answers in their wordsmiths.

Maybe they should start getting re-acquainted with the White Pages.