2 Israeli candidates already failed as prime ministers

If, at the end of the day, the race for prime minister is to take place between outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then the two candidates will have one thing in common: They both have already failed abysmally in this very role. It is quite astounding that, given their poor track records at the helm of the country, they should end up running in the next election.

There are few, if any, democracies in the world that would have agreed to let these two characters fight out yet another election. In most countries they would have been forced to leave the political stage and let others take over the reins of power.

But Israel has a long tradition of glorifying losers. Former prime minister Menachem Begin remained at the helm of the Herut Party for 30 years, losing election after election until he finally stage-managed the single major political change in this country's history by bringing the Likud to power for the first time in 1977.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who has probably contributed more than any other single living person to the development of this country, proved to be an abysmal failure when it came to contesting elections. Even when victory seemed certain, both after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and in the recent election for president, Peres managed to lose. And yet both Begin and Peres continued to contest elections time after time.

Twenty-four hours is considered a long time in the life of a politician. People have short memories when it comes to recalling their relative successes or failures, and, given the careful and successful manipulation of the media by the candidates, it is relatively easy to play up certain events while completely ignoring those that point to candidates' past failures.

No doubt if Netanyahu is allowed to run for prime minister — as indeed he should be in a democracy in which everyone has an equal right to be elected to a position of power — he will play up the injustices doled out to him. He was acquitted following a recent police inquiry into his and his wife, Sara's, moving expenses.

He may suggest that this investigation was the reason he had to step down, temporarily, from the political stage and why he now sees himself ready for a comeback. He and his supporters will try to play down the fact that he resigned from the Knesset within hours of losing the last election, long before any whiff of a police investigation. He resigned because the Israeli electorate had removed him from power. In short, he had proved a failure as prime minister.

And the same is true for Barak.

His resignation is a clear admission that, during the past 18 months, he has failed to properly manage the affairs of state. He is not in the situation, as often happens in many Western democracies, in which a prime minister calls a snap election to cash in on a momentary rise in popularity, successfully returning to power for a second and third time in succession. Barak has called the election because he is unable to govern, not because his government (what government?) is so popular that it is now time to cash in on this popularity.

There are many qualified candidates in both Likud and Labor who would be much better candidates than either Barak or Netanyahu. There are people who have worked their way up the political ladder, such as Knesset members Avraham Burg, Haim Ramon and Yossi Beilin in Labor, or Silvan Shalom, Meir Sheetrit and Limor Livnat in Likud. These people understand the ins and outs of coalition politics much better than either Barak or Netanyahu. Just a few years down the road, they will almost definitely be competing with each other for positions of power, including that of prime minister.

But it would appear that their time has not yet come. They are all politicians who will make excellent peacetime leaders. They are all politicians who will have the chance of leading Israel into its civilian era, once a final peace agreement has been reached with the Palestinians.

Barak and Netanyahu still belong to the dying breed of political leaders whose whole world outlook is based on issues of war and peace, defending the country and thinking that they can resolve the conflicts once and for all. These are the sort of issues that, each time we go to the polling booth, we are sure will not be around four years down the road. But, as has always been the case, they remain the central issues around which governments and their leaders are elected to power or fall from grace.

The truth is that with Barak or Netanyahu the Israeli public is being shortchanged. It is a choice between the bad and the worse. It is a choice between two extremely self-centered politicians who use cheap slogans to play on Israelis' worst fears about their security and safety. They thus create visions of conflict that would not exist had been more successful when they were in office.

It is, indeed, time for a change in Israeli political leadership. But neither of the two candidates on display at the moment provides any hope for that.