It does not matter one bit whether, as Labor MK Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer contends, he was the victim of a plot to scuttle his presidential bid. It does not matter even if we give him the benefit of our doubt and presume him innocent until proven guilty. Even if he is vindicated to the last trifling detail, he was right to bow out of the race.
This is because of the crucial distinction between narrow legalistic criterium for guilt and innocence and the broader civic criteria for what is appropriate and what is unacceptable. Whereas a court of law may rule Ben-Eliezer not guilty, his candidacy can still be rejected on ethical grounds.
The bar for the highest office in the land must be set higher than that of a judge’s verdict in a felony case. The people have the right to expect more of their No. 1 citizen than that he not be indicted for or convicted of a crime.
Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was probably Israel’s most popular president. He made do with humble wooden- hut lodgings back in the 1950s and the early ’60s. Although a formidable intellectual, he prided himself on being unassuming and on shunning material perks. Something akin to Ben-Zvi’s modest demeanor should constitute our model, even if nobody any longer expects the president to dwell in a shack.
Whomever we choose for president should not be a conceited, luxury-craving spendthrift with a sense of entitlement. Even a hint of covetous or greedy conduct should rule out a candidate, even if he/she broke no law.
Several of the five candidates still in the running raise sufficient doubt in that regard, to say nothing of the fact that they were subjects of investigations and legal proceedings, even if they extricated themselves by a whisker.
When it comes to Ben-Eliezer, there is nothing the matter with finding his need to live well above his means distasteful. He plainly could not afford his posh NIS 9 million seafront Jaffa penthouse.
Why go for it in the first place? Is this the example we need set (especially when all too many households struggle to find affordable housing)? Beyond that, uninhibited appetite invites unsavory associations. To finance his dream residence, Ben-Eliezer availed himself of the generosity of a wealthy benefactor. This smells off, even if he is right in claiming this was a loan (which curiously has not been repaid in three years, and which has not been reported to the authorities as the law requires).
The specter of being beholden and of having a favor to return cannot be wished away. This is every bit as unseemly as the “gifts” once showered on Ezer Weizman (Ben-Eliezer’s erstwhile political ally), and which forced him to resign in shame from the presidency in July 2000 despite not having been prosecuted (the statute of limitations had expired).
Is it suitable for a would-be president to cash large-sum checks at a money changer’s? Why after the Ehud Olmert fiasco would any public figure dare deal in cash? What is being discouraged for the average citizen should not be tolerated from those who aspire to be head of state. At the very least, that position should require upstanding moral character.
We can never know everything about every skeleton in every closet, but surely we must not ignore partially visible skeletons. After the disgrace that Moshe Katsav brought upon the presidency (he resigned in July 2007, as part of a plea bargain), it became evident that many people knew about his womanizing with subordinates. That led to much breast-beating by politicians and media personalities who had judged Katsav shady but remained silent, mostly due to the legal presumption of innocence.
If we learned anything from that debacle, it should be that it is better to rule out doubtful candidates. Not everyone who is not a criminal deserves to be considered to represent Israel.