Israel’s democracy is near-miraculous. Surrounded by vicious enemies, situated in a region inhospitable to democracy, founded by Russians and Poles ruled by Czarist whims not civil rights, populated by millions raised in autocracies, and underwriting the Arab and Ultra-Orthodox educational systems hostile to the majority’s understanding of civics, Israel should relish its ongoing democratic vitality. But democracies are delicate systems requiring vigilance against internal rot and procedural perversions. Witnessing the warm welcome the government gave Avigdor Liberman, along with the Labor Party polling shenanigans boosting the opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich, Israelis from left to right must unite to defend our democracy. Especially as an oleh chadash, a new immigrant, I insist: Israel must not become Corruptistan!
The Liberman mess is shameful from start to finish. Authorities should never pursue a criminal case for 17 years; Liberman justifiably feels abused. Just as statutes of limitations block civilized governments from investigating most crimes after particular periods, their investigations need time limits too. And the police calendar must transcend the political calendar. The appalling police interrogation in 2009 just as Liberman was becoming foreign minister, violated the political neutrality justice requires.
Nevertheless, today’s Liberman lovefest in the government is sickening. The court just declared that Liberman’s “actions were inappropriate, immoral, and fall below the expected standard of a public representative, especially that of a minister in the government of Israel.” Not being convicted “beyond a reasonable doubt” and being found morally unworthy of serving are not vindication, and do not merit being hugged, backslapped or lovingly cheek-pinched.
Watching Yair Lapid pinch Liberman’s cheek, as Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu beamed, mocked Yesh Atid’s Ani Ma’amin, founding vision, seeking “an effective government … which does all in its power to combat corruption.” This display of public affection also betrayed the Likud’s founder Menachem Begin, who embodied Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s teaching of Hadar, meaning bringing honor and glory to all you do.
On cue, Shelly Yacimovich lectured: "Public corruption is no less severe than criminal corruption” and demanded an appeal. Unfortunately, Yacimovich’s race for Labor party chair is emitting its own stench. Despite launching her re-election bid declaring “A Party that believes in democracy must be democratic in its own right,” undemocratic procedural abuses threaten the legitimacy of her Labor Party primaries this Thursday, November 21.
The 2011 elections for party chair had 140 polling places nationwide, reflecting a fair, democratic, grass-roots-sensitive rationale establishing voting stations in locations with 100 or more party members. This year, Labor’s Elections Committee – dominated by Yacimovichites – cut the number of polling places, especially where her rival Isaac Herzog appears stronger. Alas, the cuts are precisely where democratic accessibility, maximum participation, and transparency are particularly important, such as the periphery, the Arab sector, key development towns, kibbutzim and moshavim. What kind of political party with national aspirations would eliminate voting stations in Mitzpeh Ramon, Netivot, Ofakim, and Kiryat Maalachi, forcing many poor, burdened voters to travel anywhere from 15 to 58.4 kilometers to exercise their rights as party members? What kind of party, while supposedly demanding equality, would close the five Bedouin voting stations it had in 2011, and reduce stations in Arab communities from 40 to 9 and in Druze communities from 10 to 3? What kind of champion can Yacimovich be for social democracy, when her party apparatchiks disrespect democracy itself?
Equally disturbing is the proposal to centralize the vote counting, rather than having the votes counted on the spot, with totals certified immediately, so as to minimize opportunities for fraud.
Predictably, the internal Labor Party court supported Yacimovich, using the even-less accessible system deployed in 2012’s Knesset candidate primaries as its benchmark. But, hailing from New York City, with its crony-filled Board of Elections, I know how partisans masquerading as umpires pervert politics. All these pro-Yacimovich power plays against Isaac Herzog – and against proper procedure – shame the Labor Party. Labor’s current leadership is reducing the once-proud ruling party of the State of Israel to the party of the elitist, out-of-touch People’s Republic of Northern Tel Aviv.
Corruption in a democracy – be it for money or votes -- is like cancer in the bloodstream. It infects everything, escalating from a moral anemia to a cynical fever, ultimately threatening the body politic’s very existence, if untreated. Which of our political leaders will risk their careers to defend our democracy? Where is the public outcry propelling them?
All this cheating reflects broader cultural afflictions. Increasingly, Israelis feel “magiya li,” I deserve this, while fearing that only “friers,” suckers, follow rules. This toxic recipe for irresponsibility and criminality, mixing arrogance with victimhood, must be confronted by brave leadership, challenging education, and upstanding moral modeling.
Bibi Netanyahu, raised on Begin-Jabotinsky values linking individual and national virtue, must show leadership. He should support the efforts to define the crimes of fraud and breach of trust more clearly – then “reset” the system, declaring a policy of zero tolerance from now on, with a muscular Ethics Commission established in each party and in the government. He should compel police officers, prosecutors, and judges to treat all defendants fairly – no matter their status – to avoid either witch hunts or free passes for politicians. He should shun politicians who fail to measure up ethically, even if they are key allies. He should encourage all parties to have consistent, transparent, accessible voting procedures to avoid this year’s Labor Party farce.
Most important, Netanyahu should speak frankly to his political colleagues and the Israeli public, using the prime ministerial bully pulpit to push Israel beyond the small minded-culture of “I deserve this because I’m no frier,” to the expansive, noble, self-sacrificing and just Zionist culture Israel’s Founders envisioned, befitting the high ideals of Judaism and democracy, two of civilization’s greatest products.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and the author of "Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today" and Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, just published by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!