Among the pearls of wisdom in the Mishna’s Ethics of the Fathers is this advice from Rabbi Matya ben Harash: “Be the tail of lions, not the head of foxes.”
Commentators say the quote means that one should prefer to expose himself to greatness, even if it means putting aside one’s ego and taking a smaller role, rather than feed that ego by taking a leading role but lowering oneself by remaining among those of poor character.
The intensifying investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and his former staff and supporters have made such advice more complicated, because the Prime Minister’s Office is being portrayed as a den of foxes, rather than lions.
The Israeli public might not have known the names of Netanyahu’s chiefs of staff when they were among the most powerful people in the country, but thanks to the investigations, they are now household names: Ari Harow, Natan Eshel, Gil Shefer, and now David Sharan.
Harow was accused of a fictitious sale of his company and is now state’s witness against Netanyahu. Eshel and Shefer were questioned for alleged sexual harassment, and the latter has been quizzed multiple times in recent months by police investigators seeking information on Netanyahu.
And now Sharan has been held in custody all week on suspicion that he accepted bribes and has been questioned in all three of the major investigations involving Netanyahu: the expensive gifts affair, newspaper collusion probe, and submarine scandal. One could expand the list to add the name of Shlomo Filber, who was Netanyahu’s chief of staff 15 years ago and is being questioned in the Bezeq affair, and former Netanyahu parliamentary aide Perach Lerner, who admitted to fraud and breach of trust in a plea agreement in February.
Then there are Netanyahu’s main contributors. Billionaire Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, who reportedly gave police information this week that could enable them to charge Netanyahu with bribery. Las Vegas casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson was revealed this week to have received calls from Netanyahu that appeared to have influenced headlines in the newspaper he owns, Israel Hayom
. And Australian billionaire James Packer was also reportedly questioned.
There is also Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who reportedly is on the verge of an indictment in the Prime Minister’s Residence affair.
With all 10 of those current and former Netanyahu confidants embroiled, even if he is completely innocent, Netanyahu has been declared guilty by mere association before decisions have been made on whether to file charges against him. All week, he has been asked how his surroundings could be so corrupt without his knowledge.
His one-word response when asked about the latest allegations was “foam,” meaning that he was dismissing them as lacking substance.
But the question remains: How does it happen that those in charge of the most important office in the country have become tainted, one after another? Does the Prime Minister’s Office corrupt people, does it come from above, or is there just more scrutiny?
Before answering the question, it must be stressed once again that all are innocent until proven guilty, and most of those mentioned above were not and will not be convicted of anything. Among those who have been or will be convicted, they might have committed crimes by accident, due to laws being so complicated and ambiguous that it has become too easy to violate them.
A former high-ranking official in the Prime Minister’s Office, who was not there in the Netanyahu era, described contradicting phenomena of being a powerful lion yet in a cage that all can see.
“There is one force working against another,” the former official said. “On the one hand, it is hard to be corrupt when everyone is looking at you, unless you are very stupid. So much attention makes you super-careful. But on the other hand, Israel’s governmental system centralizes power in the Prime Minister’s Office, and power corrupts.”
Another former Prime Minister’s Office official, who did work for Netanyahu, blamed the increased scrutiny by media and law enforcement authorities, which he said is more intense than ever now, when there are multiple criminal investigations and state’s witnesses who have to prove their worth.
“You feel power at the Prime Minister’s Office, but I don’t think being there makes you corrupt, because that power is limited by annoying bureaucracy and by being under a microscope,” he said. “Everyone is scared and wants to get home safe. It’s not that so many people who have come through the Prime Minister’s Office have been corrupt, but that journalists look there more, and no one is a saint.”
When asked about Netanyahu in particular, he said the prime minister was a very suspicious person, but it is possible that he would not notice what was happening in his surroundings, because he is so busy.
Netanyahu’s former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror said he does not believe there has been an atmosphere of corruption in the Prime Minister’s Office. He said Netanyahu never once gave him the impression that he should consider any foreign interests in decision-making.
But former Prime Minister’s Office director-general Eyal Gabai said many people in the prime minister’s surroundings want to be the man closest to him, with the most influence, and that causes turf wars. Fallout from those turf wars could have caused former Netanyahu chiefs of staff who have been questioned by police to incriminate each other.
Gabai quoted wisdom from the Mishna (Yoma 7:4) when he advised Harow not to return for a second stint at the Prime Minister’s Office. Gabai told him it was a cause for celebration when the high priest left the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur without being harmed. He warned him that while he had emerged unscathed from the den once, if he came back, he would be taking a serious risk.
Another former official in the Prime Minister’s Office said he would advise those considering working there in the future to consider “whether or not you can get out of there alive.”