The Danger of an Unvetted Veep: An Israeli Lesson

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Dror Wahrman teaches at Indiana University, where he is Director of the Center for Eighteenth Century Studies, and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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.

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R.R. Hamilton - 9/11/2008

Oh, Cousin Carol, that's right: There never were any communists and there sure aren't any now -- especially not in college faculty lounges. Got it. Thanks for taking away that worry.

Michael Davis - 9/8/2008

I'm ashamed I have a degree from IU knowing snapperheads like this teach there.
So much for renewing my alumni membership.
Get bent Wahrman. You idiotic rantings make no sense, and will not affect any outcome or change any minds.

"Mr. President John Sidney McCain!"
January 20th, 2009.

Mike A Mainello - 9/6/2008

Breathing does not constitute experience.

Where you went to school does not constitute experience. But based upon your example I am assuming you support President George W. Bush because of his education. Also, Senator (for life) Biden did not go to an Ivy League school, so I guess he is also disqualified.

Senator Barry Obama's experience in his earlier life does not show any executive leadership. Voting "present" in the senate is not experience. Please tell me what he has done to deserve my vote? Lecturing college students does not cut it. In my opinion his policy proposals are dangerous and I don't use that term lightly.

So I guess we will agree to disagree.

Carol Vanderveer Hamilton - 9/6/2008

By the way, the Founding Fathers were all "inexperienced." Adams was a farmer, Jefferson a plantation owner, Madison likewise, Hamilton a college student turned soldier, and Washington, although he had some military experience (part of which was disastrous), was new both to being a general and to being the chief executive of a brand-new country.

However, like Obama, these men were mostly very well-educated (Madison went to Princeton at 13, Adams to Harvard, Hamilton to Columbia), intellectually curious, and unusually gifted. They were, you might say, an "elite." (Horrors!)

Carol Vanderveer Hamilton - 9/6/2008

"Communists"? Cousin RR, you are living in the 1950s (as well as being impolite and silly).

Carol Vanderveer Hamilton - 9/6/2008

"Even more inexperienced"? Are you out of your mind?

Obama attended Columbia and Harvard Law School. Palin graduated from Idaho (State), majoring in journalism (i.e., writing short sentences and paragraphs).

Obama taught Constitutional Law as a Senior Lecturer (rare title) at the University of Chicago. He worked as a community organizer, then served in the Illinois State Legislature, then was elected to the U.S. Senate. He has run a very long and remarkable campaign for president, beating out other attractive (to us) candidates.

You compare all this to the mayor of a suburb, the recent governor of a state whose population is smaller than that of Little, Rock, Arkansas, and a self-described "hockey mom," who didn't win her spot on the ticket by competing in the race (like Romney, Biden, etc.) but just had it handed to her, and that only because the hardcore evangelical wing of the party would not support McCain otherwise?

Yet Republicans mocked both Bill Clinton and Howard Dean for being the governors of "small states"--and yet those men had served two entire terms as governors of much more populous states than Alaska (where apparently the citizens live on federal money.)

Carol Vanderveer Hamilton - 9/6/2008

Ridiculous. It's you who missed the point of the article.

Sharon thought he was healthy and would live a long time; so does McCain. Because of his undue optimism about his own health, Sharon didn't carefully vet his underling, and neither did McCain.

In simplifying the essay to mere right-wing paranoia ("they're trashing us! they're trashing us!"), you're also proving the witty aphorism: "history proves that we don't learn from history."

(And by the way, i before e except after c.)

Carol Vanderveer Hamilton - 9/6/2008

You seem to have missed the entire point of this article.

Kurt Reiger - 9/4/2008

Mr. Green- I apologize! My daughter is named Elliott, named after the man who introduced me to my wife. We wanted to name a kid after him, but only had girls, so she is the only girl Elliott in the world. I do know better!

Elliott Aron Green - 9/4/2008

Kurt, Elliott is a man's name. Likewise Aron [= Aaron]. I have never heard of or seen a woman with either name. The "Ms" designation is out of place. You may make a correction.

As to your point, i am aware of what Wahrman was trying to do. But I did want to straighten out the record for the public benefit, including Wahrman's benefit

Mike A Mainello - 9/4/2008

After watching future VP Palin speak, it is obvious that the Republicans have their choices in the proper order.

Not only did she nail the speech, she showed America what an empty suit that Senator Barry (my single mother was 18) Obama really is.

It will an interesting 2 months.

Mike A Mainello - 9/3/2008

Nice to see other non-liberals on this site. Are all history teacher so liberal and transparent?

Kurt Reiger - 9/3/2008

Ms. Green-
I enjoyed reading your corrections and ideas concerning Olmert and Israel, but you missed the point. Wahrman's article is a hit peice on Sarah Palin. The Olmert-Sharon-Israel discussion is just talk, not to be taken too seriously. The point here is to trash Palin while sounding intelectual. Nobody cares is the details are off as long as Palin is trashed.

R.R. Hamilton - 9/2/2008

Maybe Democrats should've asked these questions before they nominated Obama?

It seems like McCain vetted his Veep pick about as well as the Democrats vetted their POTUS pick.

Both parties now have "babies" and "baby-sitters" on their tickets. But at least with the Repubs, the baby-sitter is at the top of the ticket.

R.R. Hamilton - 9/2/2008

How has America's foreign policy failed except in dismaying communists like you?

Elliott Aron Green - 9/1/2008

I agree with Wahrman's contempt for Olmert who was unpopular with the rank and file of Likud voters, yet was chosen by Sharon for senior cabinet posts, also despite his known reputation as a corrupt, greedy politician. In addition to being the deputy prime minister in Sharon's last cabinet, olmert had earlier been appointed by Sharon as acting finance minister [after Netanyahu's resignation]. This post gave Olmert a special proximity to the financial plate and one of the criminal investigations against him is that he tried to get the government-owned Bank Leumi to be sold to one of his cronies.

On the other hand, Wahrman wrongly imagines that retreating from the 1967 armistice lines would "secure Israel's borders." Further, Sharon may have had extraneous, self-interested motives for his withdrawal from Gaza. This is widely believed in Israel. Many argue that his retreat plan was meant to appease the "leftist"-dominated prosecution system and attorney general, Menahem Mazuz in particular, by fulfilling one of their mad fantasies, that unilateral Israeli withdrawal might somehow further "peace" with Nazi-minded Arabs. Predictably, the Hamas, which took over Gaza after Israel's retreat, partly on their claim that they had forced Israel to retreat, has soundly vitiated that "leftist" claim. Now, why did Sharon want to appease the prosecution system and attorney general, according to common belief? Because he was under investigation for taking large bribes and believed, maybe correctly, that fulfilling the "leftist" fantasy would so enchant the "leftist" prosecution establishment and Mazuz that he would not be indicted. Indeed, he was not indicted, although one of his sons was actually sentenced to jail and served a few months in the same illicit receipt of funds case.

by the way, Sharon was elected in 2003 on a platform OPPOSING a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza.

A serious error by Wahrman is his claim that there are territories "occupied" by Israel. This is incorrect despite widespread beliefs to the contrary. Besides by myself, this claim is contradicted by Prof David Ruzie, an international law expert in France, by attorney Howard Grief of Jerusalem, and other experts in international law. My article on this subject was published about nine years ago in Midstream [I do not claim to be an international law expert; however I am knowledgeable about Israel's status in international law].

Lorraine Paul - 9/1/2008

Well, as far as most of the rest of the world is concerned there is one big positive factor in electing Obama!

He's not McCain or George Bush with their failed foreign policies.

Mieke Solomon - 9/1/2008

This was an irresponsible choice by John McCain and here's why:
It's not only McCain's age that is bothersome, but he has had TWO bouts with melanoma, a cancer that is unpredictable and can return at any time anywhere in the body. Surely his doctors must have told him that.

What does Ms Palin know about legal and constitutional matters? What does she know about foreign policy? Cindy McCain, when asked this question, answered that "Alaska is close to Russia and therefore Ms Palin would know how to deal with Russia." Huh?

This choice is deeply unsettling and depressing.

Mike A Mainello - 9/1/2008

Ayers, Wright, Rezko, Votes Present over 100 times in the state senate, will negotiate without pre-conditions with terrorist nations, afraid to appear on Fox News, chooses a man for VP that wanted to split Iraq into 3 countries, 0 executive experience, in the US Senate for less than 2 years before running for President, the most liberal senator in the senate, wants to re-negotiate trade agreements with our allies, wants to leave Iraq before the country can operate as an independent nation, just to name a few because I am still on my first cup of coffee.

Judgement, you decide.

Mike Schoenberg - 9/1/2008

Another point from the article which is rather add is the fact the Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem and we have as leader of Iran this crazy man whose previous experience was as mayor of Tehran.
As who is better qualified it sounds like no one is going to change their minds.

arica coleman - 9/1/2008

Define "even more inexperienced." The whole experience argument is bogus. According to the constitution, to qualify as president, one must be 35 years of age and a natural born citizen. That's it. The question is not experience but judgement. In this Obama wins hands down. I do not care what you say about Joe Biden, Obama showed good judgement in his first executive decision. McCain, Oh God where do I begin. He is on national TV calling this woman his partner and soul mate (I wonder how Cindy MCCain feels about that) and yet, he only met this woman once, talked to her on the phone once before offering her the job. This woman was never fully vetted. In fact, it almost appears she wasn't vetted at all. His folks never went to Alaska nor did they reserch the Alaskan newspapers to see what has been written about her. Alaskans are thrilled, but puzzled by the choice. Give me a break. Experience my foot. A presidential candidate needs to demonstrate that he has good judgement. Obama passed, McCain failed plain and simple.

Mike A Mainello - 8/31/2008

So your going to vote for an even more inexperienced guy for President because he has an experienced person as VP. All your facts have done is highlight and strengthen the argument that Senator Obama should not be selected for President. He is the inexperienced one.

Though Senator Biden is "experienced" he has done nothing for 30+ years but bloviate from his job which has no real responsibility.

I guess if Gov Palin becomes president, she can select an experienced VP like Senator Obama and everything will be OK.

Nabil K Alkourainy - 8/30/2008

Its Olmert not Ulmert. Wonderful article though and exactly what I was thinking when I read the news of McCain's VP selection.