Photo: Reuters
One issue at at time: Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Photo: Reuters

How to be prime minister

Ten suggestions for Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Becoming prime minister is a life-changing experience. Menachem Begin evacuated the Sinai; Rabin delivered the Oslo agreements; Netanyahu signed the Wye Agreements, Barak failed to deliver at Camp David. Ariel Sharon carried out the disengagement, both from Gaza and from his own past.


At the time of his hospitalization, Prime Minister Sharon was Israel's most popular head of state to date. In other words, he did something right. The question remains what exactly? The following is a guide to doing it right – how to set up a successful government.


1. Nothing will happen if you don't do anything


Sharon came to the prime minister's chair from the unpadded seat of the bulldozer. His career was one of constant motion, restlessness to a degree that often irritated those around him.


His three mythological moments – crossing the Suez Canal in 1972, galloping into Beirut in 1982 and skipping across the hills (of Judea and Samaria) with his settler buddies – are all connected to this perpetual motion, part of his character as well as part of the image he tried to conjure up for himself.


But as prime minister he moved a lot less. It's not that he did nothing, God forbid, but the man who said it took him "70 years to grow up," also knew how to assess the risks of overdoing it.


The structure of the Israeli government is such that if the prime minister wants, any and all problems can and will be turned over to him for a decision. No one can handle that much.


There a maxim in business, that says that 90 percent of all problems have a way of solving themselves if you do nothing. Dwight Eisenhower, the 1950s-era U.S. president was known to have written ‘golf' in his official diary even when there were important meetings scheduled.


He understood that the country does not want hyperactive leaders, but those who think before they speak. Sharon, like Eisenhower, worried about being updated on every issue but was careful not to make unnecessary declarations or decisions.


And a word to Olmert: No one expects important decisions from you right now. The best way to keep us calm is to remain calm yourself.


2. One issue at a time


Bill Clinton says it took him several months to realize he was trying to accomplish too much at once. Contrary to the familiar expression, the prime minister does not navigate the ship, but rather moves it out of the lane used by aircraft. The only way to do this is to choose one objective and put all your energies into it.


In Sharon's case, disengagement comes immediately to mind. He defined the objective informed everyone what his intentions were and told those close to him they'd better get out of the way, because this action was the most important thing for him to accomplish.


Besides which, it also carried political weight. Israelis are always suspicious of politicians who they see as very fickle. As soon as someone is seen as sincere and determined about an issue, they earn the public's respect. So does their objective even if the public doesn't like it or agree with it.


And a word to Olmert: In the three months remaining until the national elections, you have the time to achieve only one such objective (and only one). 10,000 new police for example, would cost less than one percent of the state budget. Ask your good buddy Rudy Giuliani why it's a worthwhile investment.


3. Set the ground rules for the media


Israeli politicians can quote chapter and verse about every word written about them.


But as prime minister, Sharon often invited senior journalists to off-the-record chats and kept in touch by telephone with those he deemed important. But he was always careful not to over explain himself. He was rarely interviewed, never took part in any political debates or appeared 'from our Jerusalem studios'.


And a word to Olmert: Unlike Sharon, who was always a terrible public speaker, you are a gifted orator. For now, at least, you would be better off using your other talents.


4. National Leader or Party Chairman


Sharon never took party politics too seriously. For him it was a means to an end, not the end itself. As prime minister, Sharon believed that it was his job to win in the Likud but to work for the country.


Besides the fact that this was the right moral decision, it was also useful for him professionally. The electorate – that massive group that no one knows if it really is wiser than the sum of its parts – appreciated this. At the ballot box, they chose the person who acted like a head of state.


And a word to Olmert: You don't have to ask yourself what happens if Mofaz gets mad. It's really the other way around.


5. Let others succeed, then take the credit


Sharon believed it was not necessary to like someone in order to work with them. He gave Bibi all the tools he needed to succeed as finance minister and ignored warnings about the growing popularity of the country's 'prime minister of finance.'


"He was a good finance minister," Sharon told me, "actually more than good. I still don't understand why he quit."


As always with Sharon, it's hard to tell where coy ends and poison begins. It doesn't matter, either, since the fact remains that he let people get on with it and when they succeeded, he was there in the 'frame' with them.


And a word to Olmert: The last instruction Sharon gave as prime minister was "end the Qassam rocket attacks." He's not saying he wants to deal with it personally.


6. No more "just between us" chats


Hundreds of conversations take place in the Prime Minister's bureau each month. Security, diplomatic and political talk and a lot of gossip. From time to time an intelligence official or business leader might drop by to ask for a few one-on-one minutes with the prime minister.


It is precisely these kinds of conversations that have spawned generations of prime ministerial scandals.


But Sharon was different. Every criminal investigation opened during Sharon's years in office started before he was elected. As prime minister he was actually one of the people least involved in criminal allegations or investigations.


When Sharon became prime minister, Uri Shani became the director general of the Prime Minister's Bureau. He put an end to private conversations with the prime minister.


He saw to it that there was always a third set of ears present and the meetings were recorded. Sharon did not like it at first but then understood the logic and that it would prevent problems later on.


And a word to Olmert: Ask Shimon Peres why he never liked to read intelligence assessments but insisted on reading the original transcripts on which they were based.


7. Be polite


Sharon's manners are almost funny. He gets up when a woman comes in to the room, remembers birthdays and apologizes every time he asks someone to get him a glass of water. It sounds idiotic but it's important.


Jackie Kennedy Onassis once said her husband John's most redeeming political asset was his ability to make every one feel as if he was the most important person he ever met.


Clinton is known for his famous handshake in which he grabs and covers your entire hand and covers it with his hand while looking you directly in the eye. You don't have to be Monica to faint.


Gritty Israeli politics respects vulgarity, but as Sharon matured, he understood that being prime minister is not just a job, but a code of behavior which sets the tone for those around him.


Having worked with the staff of six prime ministers I can say that Sharon's has been the most pleasant and the most efficient.


And a word to Olmert: You have no problem with manners, but you have a tendency to remind people how important you are. Forget it, they know.


8. Don't do anything just because you promised


Sharon has made many promises. Some he kept and some he did not.


It isn't that Sharon is a liar. He understands that the only determining factor in the Israeli reality is that things change. If you don't change with them you might as well pack it up.


And a word to Olmert: You gave your word, well, what is certain that you don't have to be faithful to promises made by Sharon.


9. If someone doesn't fit in, don't wait for him to change. Replace him


Over the summer, everyone was full of praise for IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz for successfully implementing the disengagement program.


What no one remembers is that Halutz was not even supposed to be leading the IDF last summer. Had Moshe Yaalon gotten the traditional extension all of his predecessors merited, disengagement may not have gone so smoothly.


Sharon deals with people as tools, but he is so practical that most of his victims never hold it against him. Avi Dichter did not have his appointment as Shin Bet chief extended for a fourth year, but nonetheless joined Kadima.


And a word to Olmert: To quote Eli Wallach in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' – "When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk."


10. Stay Healthy.


פרסום ראשון: 01.16.06, 22:25
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