Israel should not forget its moral compass

Was there a criminal offense? It shouldn’t matter. High standards should be the baseline for our country’s leadership.

January 26, 2017 19:58
4 minute read.
WHO DOESN’T like a nice cigar?

WHO DOESN’T like a nice cigar?. (photo credit: REUTERS)

‘Leave the guy alone.”

“It’s just some cigars and champagne.”

“This is just another witch hunt.”

As I hear many people making these and other similar comments, I feel the need to ask: What is happening to us? Are we forgetting our moral compass as a country? When I was elected to serve in the 19th Knesset, the general counsel met with all the new MKs and explained the various rules and regulations which we were now subject to, as well as offering some strongly worded suggestions.

He advised not to accept gifts from anyone, ranging from visitors to our Knesset office, people wanting to cover the cost at a lunch meeting, or even a cup of coffee. At first I thought his recommendations were extreme, but over time I came to understand the importance and requirement to remain free from any potential conflicts of interest.

Even without a quid pro quo, even if the person giving me the gift were never to ask anything of me, clean governance means the people who elected me know that I was working strictly toward what was best for the state, with no possibility in mind of any personal gain.

Which leads us to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

No one in the Prime Minister’s Office denies that he received expensive cigars from American businessman Arnon Milchan on a regular basis. No one in the prime minister’s inner circle denies that his wife, Sara, received continuous deliveries of expensive champagne from Milchan. In fact, the prime minister’s lawyer said outright: “There is no ban on receiving cigars as a gift,” and “Any reasonable person knows that someone bringing their friend cigars is not a criminal offense.”

Let’s put aside reports that the Netanyahus referred to these gifts in code words – “leaves” and “pink” – which seems to indicate a deliberate ploy designed to hide their receiving these expensive gifts. Let’s put aside reports that Milchan claims he did not give the gifts because he wanted to give his friends some presents, but because the Netanyahu’s demanded them.

Let’s put aside reports that the cigars were delivered every two weeks over the course of seven years, and that the worth of these gifts amounted to between NIS 400,000 and NIS 600,000. And let’s put aside reports of requests for expensive jewelry, and follow-up demands that the precise jewelry requested was not purchased.

The mere acknowledgment by the prime minister that gifts of this kind were received from a wealthy businessman should be enough for the Israeli population to demand that the prime minister step down from leading the country. Was there a criminal offense? It shouldn’t matter. High standards should be the baseline for our country’s leadership.

And no one should respond that “everyone does it.”

This is simply not true. I remember that argument 15 years ago, when so many professional baseball players were taking all kinds of performance enhancing drugs. “Everyone does it,” went the argument, except not everyone did; and those who remained clean were hurt by the cheaters, giving all of baseball a bad stain that continues to reverberate today, in arguments over whether those cheaters should be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

So too in politics. There are corrupt politicians drawing headlines who give the rest of the Knesset a bad name, reflected in polls that continue to show a steep erosion of confidence in our political leadership – a survey in July showed that political parties were at the bottom of the list of institutions in the country, trusted by a mere 22% of the public, with the Knesset second- to-last at 38%. But most members of Knesset and government across all parties would never consider accepting such gifts, let alone ask for them. The prime minister of our country should set the standard for clean governance, and not be that person who washes his hands from a scandal by saying his behavior is “not criminal.”

The second case for which Netanyahu is under investigation is no better. Engaging in discussions with the owner of a newspaper to obtain more positive coverage, in return for working to reduce the influence of a competing newspaper, may not be criminal, but it certainly crosses the line of inappropriate behavior.

Full disclosure: I am an active member of the Yesh Atid party led by MK Yair Lapid, which has emerged as the alternative to Netanyahu’s government. My party in the opposition continues working to topple the current government, in order to bring about an early election. But the conclusion which I draw from the prime minister’s scandals is not to topple the government and head to an election – there are capable ministers on the Likud list who can take over the reins of the party and the government. But the people of Israel should not lose sight of their moral compass, and accept a prime minister who doesn’t act according to the highest of ethical standards.

We, the people, deserve better, and we, the people, should demand better.

The writer served in the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party.

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