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The Danger of an Unvetted Veep: An Israeli Lesson

A celebrated war hero turned elder statesman runs while in his 70s for the highest executive office in the land as an agent of change, and against the grain of his own party. Sounds familiar? Well, before the Republican party embarked on this route in the presidential elections of 2008, Ariel Sharon tried it in Israel in 2005. Nothing perhaps can bring some sober judgment – rather than PR hype – into the meaning of McCain’s choice for VP better than a quick reminder of what has happened in Israel in the three years since.

Ariel Sharon was the strongest and most popular leader Israel has seen in many years (a fact which itself should still be considered one of the greatest reversals in modern politics, though that’s a topic for another occasion). He was a maverick who often boasted of his independence from, and even contempt for, his Likud party. He re-ran for prime minister at the age of 77, the oldest candidate that Israel has ever seen run for leader of the nation, on the mantra of ‘Change’: changing the course the country was going by finally retreating from the occupied territories and securing Israel’s borders, and changing politics by eliminating the corrupt ways of the Likud party. He was absolutely confident of his health, and jokingly dismissed those concerned about his premature demise – if for a septuagenarian it is still in a statistical sense “premature”. When asked about his advanced age and former health problems, he replied with a disarming smile that the genes in his family guaranteed unusual longevity.

In November 2005 Sharon left the Likud party to found the new party “Kadima” in order to break the gridlock of Israeli politics. Sharon and Kadima moved buoyantly forward as the new, unstoppable force in Israeli politics. Things never looked better: their lead in the polls was unshakeable, the excitement was great. And then, out of the blue, came the stroke. There had been some warning signs, which with hindsight should not have been disregarded for political reasons. But like McCain’s brushes with cancer, the doctors assured the nation that there was no reason to worry. (After Sharon had what was described as a “mini-stroke,” Haaretz quoted his doctors' reassurance that he was “healthy” and that “odds were it would not recur." Recently, the New York Times quoted Charlie Black, one of McCain’s top advisers, saying that Palin “is going to learn national security at the foot of the master for the next four years, and most doctors think that he’ll be around at least that long.”) In Sharon’s case, however, the doctors were wrong. Within three months of the creation of Kadima Sharon was in a coma, from which he has never recovered.

So here is the most relevant, and worrisome, parallel to McCain in 2008. Sharon was so confident of his health and endurance that he never really thought of his no. 2 as a possible replacement for his indomitable self. Rather, he appointed a deputy prime minister based on short term political calculations within his party. This is how Ehud Ulmert, a second rank politician with no realistic shot at the top political slots, landed the job. And that is how Ulmert became prime minister of Israel, without ever having been vetted or evaluated for the position, once the contingencies of human life had their say.

Now Ulmert is no Sarah Palin. (And this despite a rather similar I’m-one-of-the-guys-who-is-into-soccer-just-like-you appeal.) He was not the mayor of a unimportant 7000-person suburb on the far edge of the planet: he was a decade-long mayor of Jerusalem, one of the planet’s hotspots with the greatest international coverage. And he was not a 44-year old regional politician with no national or international profile: he had become a member of the Israeli Knesset at age 28 and had more than thirty years of experience on multiple levels including cabinet posts and much foreign exposure. And yet, on the most important question, the parallel is as obvious as it is sobering: Ulmert was never vetted for the highest office in the land, was never examined to see if he had those particular qualifications that are different than those required for most other positions, never had to go through the long, wrenching process that makes one more or less ready for this responsibility.

And when the responsibility landed on him anyway, he failed spectacularly. It turned out that these former experiences, which honed different qualities, were of little use to him under real pressure in real time. I’m not talking about the corruption scandals from Ulmert’s earlier past that inevitably surfaced now that all the spotlights were on him and that have ultimately led to his still-pending resignation; though there is such danger with Palin as well. (And the parallel here breaks down of course, since in the Israeli parliamentary system, in contrast to the U.S., political dynamics and mechanisms are in fact in place to enable the removal of an unfit leader from office before the projected end of his term.) But no, I am talking now about the second Lebanon war: a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions – in Israeli terms – that came about because Ulmert failed as both leader and commander in chief. When Ulmert faced the pressures of coalition building, he caved in and made all the wrong choices for high ministerial offices, thus equipping Israel with a minister of defence who was utterly the wrong person to place in that position. When Ulmert was placed under pressure by the Hizbullah ambush on Israeli soldiers, he panicked and made again all the wrong choices: in starting an unnecessary war while talking tough, in escalating it when he couldn’t win, and in allowing it to continue for weeks while thousands of missiles fell on Israeli civilians for the first time in history.

In short, Israel and Lebanon both are now much worse off, and thousands of people are dead and wounded, because of one reason: the fact that Sharon, in placing Ulmert one (fallible) heartbeat away from the prime-minister’s office, never bothered to find out – and never allowed others to ask – whether Ulmert had, even remotely, what it takes to receive that phone call at 3am.