Israel needs leaders like Joe Lieberman

Lieberman was always that rarity, a mensch in politics. It reflected his Judaism, Americanism, and liberalism

Last week, Senator Joe Lieberman died at 82. Despite decades in politics, he remained a man of honor – embodying integrity, patriotism, and courage. Today, Israel needs Likud elders emulating Lieberman willing to risk their government Volvos – which each can afford independently – to save Israel from Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 1998, when Bill Clinton behaved abominably, then polarized America denying Monica Lewinsky’s truths, Joe Lieberman broke ranks. He challenged Clinton’s infidelity and dishonesty in a Senate speech. “It was a very hard thing for me to do,” Lieberman recalled, “because I liked him.” But Lieberman understood that “if I didn’t say something, I’d be a hypocrite. I also felt that if somebody who was supportive of him didn’t say something, it would not be good” – for America.

This mild-mannered senator risked political suicide. Clinton and the Democrats crushed any doubters, demonizing them as puritanical zealots. But Lieberman was ready to sacrifice his career – for the nation.

He passed the mirror test.

We all must wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and like what we see. Few want to sell their souls to an evil cause, a misguided mission, or – Likudniks arise! – a flailing, failing leader.

Surprisingly, Clinton’s chief of staff Erskin Bowles told Lieberman his speech “burst the boil,” Democrats started thinking subtly and patriotically, not monolithically; as leaders, not partisan hacks. Eventually, Clinton called to say, Lieberman recalled, “that there’s nothing you said in that speech that I don’t agree with. And I want you to know that I’m working on it.”

In 2000, the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, selected Lieberman as his running mate, honoring Lieberman’s bravery. When they lost following a controversial Supreme Court decision, both patriots accepted the result, for the nation’s sake.

Lieberman was always that rarity, a mensch in politics. It reflected his Judaism, Americanism, and liberalism. But being 56 when he defied Clinton probably helped. He had already made it. He knew who he was. He still had ambitions – and unexpected triumphs ahead. But he had reached that life stage when doing right becomes more important than clawing ahead.

Judaism Values elders as “the community’s eyes.” They see that it’s not worth living long if you can’t live right. But elders must give voice to their wisdom, speaking uncomfortable truths when the nation needs it.

Israel faces a multifront war, international hatred, and domestic unrest, from a vicious hyper-partisanship, Left and Right, to mass draft evasion by haredim amid a soldier shortage. Benjamin Netanyahu’s massive, ever-growing, credibility deficit magnifies each crisis.

The turnaround is stunning – justifying term limits. Mr. Security became Mr. Insecurity. The backroom dealmaker can’t even close easy deals with haredi parties to at least start guarding their own. This leader who worships Churchill has been un-Churchillian, dismissive, divisive, defensive – and offensive. He offers no public leadership – no constructive vision, meaningful updates, or effective rallying cries. And the master diplomat, the silver-tongued strategist who boasted about charming Americans, American Jews, and the world, now repels them.

Israelis confuse the world: most support Netanyahu’s call for a Rafah invasion, but won’t criticize those hostage families demanding an immediate deal. That same supermajority wants Bibi gone, the protests to end, and the hostage families to demonstrate abroad, not at home.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Joe Lieberman. Photo by GPO

I wince whenever thoughtful Israelis claim Bibi is dithering militarily to avoid elections. Even if untrue – as I hope – one wise friend observes that the claim’s popularity proves the intensity of the mistrust.

I fear wartime elections or protests. Instead, Netanyahu should specify a future election date and retirement date. Even better, he should resign, designating a less polarizing Likudnik who could fight the war equally aggressively without antagonizing so many here and abroad.

Five Likud elders must break the impasse with a Joe Lieberman leap. All 60-plus, they had legendary achievements before they entered politics. Each can look in the mirror, proud of the good lives they’ve made for themselves and our nation. Each must take responsibility to help send Bibi home and start a national reset – even during this fraught period.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, 65, has taken baby steps – defying Netanyahu during the judicial reform while insisting that more haredim serve.

The others have betrayed us with their silence. Where is former Jerusalem mayor and hi-tech pioneer Nir Barkat, 64, who’s been repeatedly humiliated by Netanyahu? What’s he waiting for? Where is Avi Dichter, 71, a brave former Shin Bet director, who devoted his life to Israel’s security? Where is the former Prisoner of Zion, and one of my heroes, Yuli Edelstein, 65? Having defied the Soviet Union and KGB, does he really want to be remembered as being cowed by Bibi? And what about Shalom Danino, 68, an air force veteran and real estate mogul, whose brother Yitzhak, Ofakim’s mayor, can detail how much his neighbors suffered on October 7 from Bibi’s failures.

I take no joy in joining the pile-on against our prime minister – especially during wartime. I wish we could defer this leadership change to peacetime. And I regret targeting the Likudniks I most admire. But this is their moment. Our need for their courage grows daily.

I was lucky enough, by chance, to have an email exchange with Lieberman the day before he died. It ended with me hailing “your well-deserved reputation for integrity.”

I wish our leaders long life, and I hope that, in the far future, one of the last emails they get honors their timely Liebermanesque courage.

Published by Jerusalem Post