Update: This blog post was written before former president of Israel Shimon Peres’ passing and unfortunately published on September 28th (the date we were notified of his passing). I wish to express my deepest condolences to the Peres family, and also recognize Peres’ leadership, the important role he played in the peace process, as well as the unique partnership he had with my father.
The past decade has been characterized by increased political upheavals across the globe. The Arab Spring has evolved into a series of civil wars, with its repercussions crossing regional boundaries. Europe is suffering from a wave of brutal terrorism with the challenge of millions of refugees knocking on its doors at the same time. Russia is engaging in aggressive action toward the Ukraine and Syria. The UK, once a symbol of democratic political stability, has been incomparably shaken by the vote on exiting the European Union on the one hand, and concerns about the disintegration of the United Kingdom, on the other.
Many of the conflicts have clear ethnic origins, which makes them challenging to resolve and ever more total and violent in nature. Globalization, for its part, intensifies the reverberations of each crisis. A series of regional and global superpowers are involved in the war in Syria: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the U.S. The refugee crisis is shaking all of the Western governments and the economic collapse of Greece threatens the entire European Union. To effectively deal with these crises, multiple players with conflicting interests are required to collaborate, which makes reaching a solution inherently difficult.
Taken together, this combination of economic slump, ethnic conflicts with global implications and the difficulty of having political and diplomatic apparatuses to deal with them creates fertile ground for the rise of extremist demagogues. Rather than seeking to seriously resolve the present challenges, these politicians take advantage of the anxiety of the masses, itself intrinsic to attaining power for their own benefit. They perceive politics and international relations as a zero-sum game in which the winner is totally entitled to avenge his enemies. When the emptiness of their promises is exposed, they point their finger to internal and external enemies, depicting every legitimate objection to their rule as a threat to national security. In this atmosphere, it is not surprising that weak regimes, or those with no democratic legacy easily deteriorate into authoritarian rule. Even longstanding democracies are vulnerable.
Turkey, following the failed coup attempt and the massive arrests by Erdogan, is a country in turmoil. The buds of freedom that seemed to be sprouting in Russia have since been suffocated by Putin. Extremism is evident in Eastern Europe and even in Austria, where the candidate of the extreme right is leading the presidency polls. Even the boundless ends of political discourse taking place in the U.S. election pertain to what is happening globally.
It is at moments like this that the difference between real leaders and those that take advantage of extremist currents becomes more pronounced. True leaders are individuals who can face the masses and cool down the hysteria; they know how to place the crises in proportion and deal with them in a rational, well-considered manner. Leaders are mindful of the anxieties of their people and do not become captives of surveys and political discourse dictated by extreme elements. True leaders are not only concerned with winning the next round of elections, but with where their country is headed in the next five, ten or twenty years. A true leader is willing to take risks for the greater good!
My father, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s second term in office is a case in point. Rabin understood that as long as the Palestinian problem remained unresolved, the future of Israel as a Jewish democratic nation was in jeopardy due to the Jewish-Arab demographic ratio and indeterminate borders. There was never going to be an ideal time or opportunity, but there could never be normalization of everyday life for Israeli (and Arab) citizens without some kind of resolution. To achieve his purpose, Rabin withstood some of the most flagrant and violent provocations, and remained undeterred to the very end. He knew and believed in what had to be done. Rabin realized the social and economic ramifications that faced his people, country and the region if he did not take the opportunities at hand - he also understood the risks. Those who accuse the assassinated Prime Minister for the failure of the Oslo Accords are the ones who offer no realistic alternative for grappling with the Palestinian challenge (concurrently belittling their part of the failure so that it will be dismissed). Rabin chose to confront and expose the hard truths to the public—understanding there would be consequences but believing it was for the benefit of his country. Today too there are some examples of leaders who are courageous enough to take unpopular stands: Germany’s Angela Merkel has done her best to handle the refugee crisis thoughtfully, responsibly, and wisely, albeit at a significant political price.
In the long run, the need for true leadership becomes ever more evident with the backdrop of extremist and populist currents all over the world. At this time, it is worth noting that historically, the moderate Western democracies are the only regimes that have provided their citizens stability, security and prosperity. Those who glorify Putin for his "strength" and belittle mindful leaders such as Merkel would have never relocated to Russia to live, because it is a lagging, unapproachable country that persecutes those who object to the regime as well as existing elements of society. While there are many examples of populists who drove their countries into ruin, thankfully very few succeeded. Democratic nations should be aware of the risks and dangers of those who resort to power, military force imposing limitations on freedom of speech, individual rights and outlawing long-established institutions and/or extend additional powers to themselves in order to quash the checks and balances which are part of a democratically-run government. At the end of the day, a leader's true power lies not in bombastic statements or the boldness to declare yet another war but in the ability to look ahead, navigate between and against the murky currents instead of riding them, have the integrity and courage to make difficult decisions and accept responsibility for the risks and consequences for the greater good.