Mastering the Skills of President

It has taken me 49 years of Israel-watching to find the answer to a question that puzzles us all, and I am pleased to inform you that the search has ended.

It was a headline in late April that provided the information we have all sought, one that read “Four Presidents Join in Volunteer Effort.” The story, which you certainly read, described how Presidents Ford, Carter, Bush and Clinton met with a three-day gathering of thousands of volunteers, kicking off a nationwide campaign of “volunteerism” designed to get the rest of us out into the community to do good works for our less fortunate neighbors.

Who can argue? Families need homes? Let’s help them build one. Children need to read? Let’s teach them. People want jobs? Let’s provide them. No one claims that volunteerism will solve all of our social ills, but, say our assembled presidents, it can go a long way to ameliorating them.

That brings us to both the puzzling question and its answer. Why has every Israeli leader, from David Ben-Gurion to Binyamin Netanyahu, found it advisable to visit Washington and meet with his or her American counterpart not just once or twice but, it would seem at times, incessantly?

And the answer, it turns out, is that American presidents have learned the sacred secret of successful leadership in a democratic state. As we are seeing in the great volunteerism scam, they have perfected the art of using broad sheets of glorious rhetoric to cover up the widespread moral inequities resulting from their policies and practices.

All of the good works of Jimmy Carter and Habitat will not make a visible dent in the number of families made homeless by the so-called welfare “reforms” that Congress and President Clinton approved last year.

The giant corporations that have acceded to the demand by Gen. Colin Powell (a possible president No. 5, four years from now?) that they lend their names to this program, do not halt, for a moment, the downsizing, outsourcing and giving of inflated stock options to CEOs — practices that characterize the policies of so many of them.

And all of the money raised by the sale of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book, “It Takes a Village,” will not compensate for any of the children whose futures are placed at risk by drastic cuts in youth programs, education budgets and Head Start.

Netanyahu, who, you recall, was educated in this country, must had been paying close attention. Recommended by the Israeli police for indictment on grounds of political corruption, he avoids trial because the attorney general says the evidence is not conclusive, and he then promptly declares that he is now proven innocent and the media are to blame for his predicament. Blaming the messenger for the message is as old a Washington trick as is misinterpreting a lack of evidence as proof of innocence.

Mastery of these skills is also evident in the way Israel, under Likud and Labor alike, deals with Diaspora Jews. When it suits its purposes, Jerusalem proclaims itself the sole representative of World Jewry. Inasmuch as there is no rival for the title, the self-appointed status has some value in dealing, for example, with the Vatican. But when it comes to Israel’s Knesset votes that affect non-Orthodox American Jews, they are told that they will have to move to Israel in sufficient numbers if they want to influence the Knesset. Someone in Jerusalem should be asked when Israel represents us and when it does not. Not that our own leaders are likely to; they are too busy fighting over halachic turf to be bothered.

Watching our current and former presidents urging us to be nice people and to replace the immense resources of government in the task of caring for the needy, I was struck with admiration for the slickness of the whole procedure. Having created the crisis by refusing to accept financial and social responsibility for the welfare of the young, the ill, the poor and the unfortunate, they will use the good offices of public relations firms to do the job. It is almost as sickening as watching their pupil, Netanyahu, explain how he is furthering peace in Israel by being held to ransom by a handful of religious fanatics in Hebron and opening tourist tunnels in Jerusalem to please wealthy men in America who pay for the digging.

Yehuda Lev writes from Providence, R.I.

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