Israel is enduring a moment of split-screen governing. Side by side, headlines report Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planning unprecedented visits to South America in November and his opponents anticipating his imminent indictment.
It’s time for Netanyahu to go to his Caesarea retreat and think. He should think about his character. He should think about his actions. He should think about his legacy. And he should think about his people and his nation.
If Netanyahu and his wife are innocent of the mounting allegations against them, he is behaving appropriately. If he really stayed within the law while accepting boxes of cigars and cases of champagne, he shouldn’t quit. He should hold his ground if he really knew nothing about the submarine deal, which, more than a putrid story of bribery, threatens the state’s security by wasting money on unnecessary purchases and by exposing these superfluous submarines to Iranian chicanery through the Revolutionary Guard’s investment in the German manufacturer ThyssenKrupp.
If innocent, Prime Minister Netanyahu is morally obligated to champion the rule of law against the media lynch mob. Israel needs him to defend the principle of electoral legitimacy and stop the criminalization of politics. Our Gotcha Age is bad for democracy. Politicians should be defeated by voters at the ballot box, not slander on the Internet and in the press. We should argue prime ministers out of office, not indict them.
Yet, guilt is like pregnancy – it’s all or nothing, you either are or you’re not. If he’s just a little bit guilty of any of the crimes of which he is accused, Netanyahu should resign gracefully – and quickly. Here, President Reuven Rivlin, a man of great integrity, can help.
If Netanyahu is guilty, we need him out of office, not in jail. Israel has already proved its willingness to imprison its highest leaders when necessary. I will not object if Netanyahu’s lawyers negotiate a blanket pardon from President Rivlin in return for Netanyahu’s resigning forthwith.
If Netanyahu is guilty the country needs to be spared a lengthy, bloody political battle that will trash his reputation – and rock Israel’s justice system.
If Netanyahu is guilty let him retire gracefully with some credibility intact.
If Netanyahu is guilty he will remain one of Israel’s most respected experts on national security issues, on the Iranian threat, on the new alliance with the Sunni countries; why abandon that too?
Our Age of Gotcha, with self-righteous media types calling for our leaders’ heads, has also spawned the Age of Chutzpah, with self-indulgent leaders denying guilt, refusing to quit, stirring partisan emotions, even when caught.
It didn’t start with US President Donald Trump, who survived humiliating campaign revelations that would have felled less egotistical and more self-critical characters. America’s King of Chutzpah was Bill Clinton. Clinton was not just guilty of conducting an affair with a 22-year-old intern, he was guilty of obstruction of justice. Yet first he denied the affair, publicly, aggressively. Then, when caught by DNA evidence, he claimed it was personal, irrelevant, and, besides, everybody does it. As media and Republican attacks mounted, Clinton pulled the ultimate ju-jitsu move, demonizing Kenneth Starr so brilliantly that the presidential defendant became the accuser and the government prosecutor became the accused.
Clearly, Clinton’s strategy – and now Trump’s – shaped Netanyahu’s performance last week, rousing Likud partisans. From Netanyahu’s perspective, these tactics worked for others, they should work for him, too. Looking closer to home, he sees the resurrected yet apparently unreformed Arye Deri and others still masquerading as public servants and thinks, “anything they can do I can do better.”
But here’s the key: Clinton survived but his scandal hurt America. Trump won but he sullied democracy. Netanyahu may now subject Israel to months of political paralysis, leaving years of increased cynicism as his legacy. If he is innocent, it’s a valuable battle to fight. But Netanyahu knows if he is guilty or innocent. And if he is guilty, this man who has repeatedly warned the world about the threats Israel faces must avoid threatening his country’s democratic legitimacy and national security.
Leaders in parliamentary systems rarely know how to retire gracefully. They tend to forget that, as in show business, you want a strong finish. Final impressions are lasting.
Israel’s prime minister is a prince of the Jewish People, who should be setting a high standard of conduct. If Netanyahu lapsed, many of these alleged crimes are so petty as to be both laughable and forgivable. But if he indulges his ego, paralyzes the country, then leaves in shame, his many accomplishments in office will be forgotten, his patriotism will be doubted, his name will be mud.
The Ethics of the Fathers admonishes: “Pray for the government’s integrity, for without it, people would devour their neighbors.” Instead of thinking “how can I prolong this, inflicting maximum damage on my opponents” – harming the political system – and, we learn, society too, it’s time for Netanyahu to think, “how can I salvage this, minimizing the harm to the system and to my reputation?” And, if he retires, let him pick a successor wise enough to understand that when in public service you serve others – retirement at that level offers more than enough opportunity to cash in.
The time has come to restore our leaders’ moral credibility and the people’s faith in their integrity and the system itself. Go Netanyahu go.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,