Israelis Look to Ex-Soldiers for Leadership

When Israeli prime Minister Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke last year, pundits proclaimed Israel would no longer be dominated by its military heroes. Sharon's predecessor, the ex-commando Ehud Barak, had been banished to the wilderness, and Ehud Olmert, Sharon's successor, was a corporate lawyer who'd spent most of his military service as a combat journalist. His pick for Defense minister, moreover, was Amir Peretz, a former trade unionist. Israel, it seemed, had finally entered a purely civilian era.

What a difference a bungled war can make. In the aftermath of last summer's disastrous campaign in Lebanon, Olmert is barely holding on to power, with poll numbers of about 3 percent, and the hapless Peretz (who was photographed in February inspecting a military drill through binoculars with the lens caps on) has bottomed out at 1 percent. Meanwhile, a number of decorated military figures have come roaring back.

It wasn't supposed to work this way. After Lebanon, the conventional wisdom held that Israel's public was fed up with the military for waging war with poor planning, training, and equipment. Chief of Staff Dan Halutz was one of the few leaders to resign. More heads may roll this week, when the Winograd Commission, which is investigating the conduct of the war, releases an interim report. So why are war heroes like Barak and Ami Ayalon now some of the most popular politicians in the country, according to recent polls? "It's a back-to-the-future moment," says Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University.

It may be that the public was never as angry with the armed forces as pundits claimed. "I don't believe people are fed up with the military," says historian Michael Oren. To be sure, the army's reputation was damaged by the conflict; A recent poll by the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya revealed that more than a quarter of those questioned had less confidence in the military after the war than they had had before. Yet more than twice as many—57 percent—said they had an even less favorable impression of the government in general. Other surveys suggest the public is holding its civilian leaders most accountable.

So Israelis are looking to their heroes, as the nation—which is still officially at war with most of its neighbors—tends to do at moments of insecurity (and with Hamas, Hizbullah, and Iran rattling their sabers, this is one of them). Even Israel's doves acknowledge this trend. "I lost elections because people thought I was too peaceful," says Shimon Peres, Israel's deputy prime minister. Sure enough, a poll published in March by Israel's Channel 10 showed Barak and Ayalon far ahead of Olmert and Peretz if an election were held today.

Other signs show that Israelis are reinvesting in their most cherished institution. The Israel Defense Forces has seen an uptick in the number of new recruits volunteering for its elite combat units, such as the storied Golani Brigade. Reservists—who once used to joke that they got back together only for parties—are training more often and more vigorously, something they used to avoid. One reservist, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, says that in all of last year he was called up for 44 days of duty; in the first four months of this year, he says, he's already served more than 30 days.

What does all this mean for the moribund peace process and the rest of the Middle East? Many Israelis—and even some Palestinians—believe that a popular Israeli war hero in office could be the region's best chance for a peace agreement. One relatively dovish senior Israeli security official, who didn't want to be identified in order to keep his job, told NEWSWEEK that, despite a recent flurry of diplomatic activity in the region, any kind of peace agreement—and even serious strategic planning—is probably a nonstarter given Olmert's political weakness. "You might be talking about a government that will collapse," he said.

If that happens, a general might well be voted into office—which could serve everyone's interest. The Jewish state has been down this road before. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel had been caught unprepared by a major invasion, the electorate turned against the civilian prime minister, Golda Meir, who ultimately resigned. She was replaced by a respected military man, Yitzhak Rabin. And it was Rabin, of course, who eventually led the country to its first major peace treaty with the Palestinians.