What’s the big deal? A few cigars here, some pink champagne there. Two million shekels appearing in your wife’s bank account here, some houses disappearing from your tax returns there. Everybody does it. It’s just politics. Besides, how else do you get things done? These rationalizations underplaying the corruption charges shadowing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Likud coalition chairman MK David Bitan and Interior Minister (and ex-con) Aryeh Deri reveal how corrupting corruption is.
As president, George Washington strived to maintain that “most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” Israel should demand such leaders too. And Netanyahu’s hero Winston Churchill said, “Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.” Israel should be embarrassed by a prime minister reduced to “Sar Hamashkot,” Minister of Bartending, whose biggest crimes may be so small their very pettiness magnifies our national shame.
Corruption is the soul sickness of the body politic, infecting our government, our politics, our politicians, and our political discourse.
Corrupt politicians don’t just break the law. They don’t just make their supporters enablers, implicit co-conspirators. They mass-produce suspicion, cynicism, distrust and dishonesty. These are the thought germs that debilitate democracies. A democratic government’s legitimacy relies on the consent of the governed, the faith citizens place in their leaders and the systems controlling their lives.
With tycoons craving power and politicians craving money, some cheating is inevitable.
Increasingly, however, Israeli politicians survive, even when caught red-handed, thanks to what the writer Leon Wieseltier calls Zionism’s noble bitzu’ist
impulse to get the job done distorted by the ignoble Western addiction to partisanship.
Bitzu’ism reveals Israel at its best and worst.
Get-it-done-ism built the state, won wars, launched thousands of patents and millions of pa-tents
– Hebrew for the perfect corner- cutting, problem-solving improvisation.
Bitzu’ism is also responsible for Israelis’ impatience, frenzy and stress.
This achievement-oriented pragmatism mixed with modern partisanship risks spawning magia li-ism
, “I deserve-it-ism.” Casting yourself as heroically surmounting every obstacle often makes you immodest and greedy – seizing rewards as ingeniously as you solved problems.
Demonstrating that toxic trend, during Hanukka, the holiday of lights celebrating our Holy Temple’s purification, Netanyahu delivered what may have been his darkest speech ever, desecrating our modern temple – our Jewish state.
What kind of nationalist bashes national institutions like the police, that “thin blue line” protecting us from criminals and terrorists? What kind of leader after governing for nine years can turn on the police, as Netanyahu did, with any credibility, pretending he hasn’t been in charge for so long he appointed most of their leaders? Why should our kids respect police officers when the prime minister sneers at them? And if Israel’s police force is as flawed as he alleges, why didn’t he institute reforms before the investigations began? Why doesn’t he fix it now, systematically, properly, ethically? The Likudnikim who slavishly cheered Netanyahu’s reprehensible speech bashing the police sacrificed their souls to stay in power.
Can you imagine how this Pavlovian mob would react if any leftist dished up similar demagoguery, mocking the rule of law, disrespecting our underpaid, overworked law enforcement officers? And why did only two Kulanu MKs, Merav Ben-Ari and Rachel Azaria, have enough integrity to vote against this ridiculous “Recommendations Bill” meant to further handcuff and humiliate our noble police? Did all other coalition MKs put their consciences on mute? Of course, partisan blinders obscure vision for liberals as well as conservatives, and globally, not just in Israel. In the United States, people who derided me for opposing Bill Clinton when he corruptly covered up his sexual harassment and obstruction of justice are today furious about President Donald Trump’s lesser sins (which I also condemn).
Our willingness to hold our enemies to the highest standards while holding ourselves to the lowest ones is contrary to what good democrats should do. Honor, like corruption, is contagious. If we all acted as honorably as possible – judging our enemies as generously as we judge our most flawed or valuable ally – our polities would be soaring to the top – not sinking to the bottom.
As painful as it is to attack Israel’s prime minister in this way, acquiescing silently would be worse. I respect Netanyahu’s achievements, including building Israel’s economy, advancing Israel’s independence from Arab oil, opposing Iran, intimidating Syria and forging new alliances with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, China and Russia. But we need a leader with Washingtonian honesty and Churchillian granduer.
I therefore echo my earlier call for Netanyahu to resign, in exchange for a full presidential pardon for him and his wife, to spare Israel from any further democratic degradations.
President Reuven Rivlin should also appoint an elite commission to scrutinize police investigations, rooting out leaks, favoritism, political timing – and the debilitating tendency to prolong investigations. Like our politicians, our police must have spotless reputations – and efficient procedures.
We need a new leader in the tradition of Netanyahu’s ideological forefather, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Jabotinsky envisioned a Jewish state filled with – not just led by – new Jews, embodying Hadar
, that Hebrew term crossbreeding glory, dignity and nobility, which Jabotinsky taught combines “outward beauty, respect, self-esteem, politeness, faithfulness.” Israel deserves a leader with Hadar. And Israel needs a dignified discourse among virtuous citizens ready to “get it done” in ways that reflect our idealism and integrity, not just our pragmatism and pa-tents.
The writer is the author of
The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book,
The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018.
He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.