Faint echoes of Ford pardoning Nixon in possible Netanyahu plea deal - analysis

While what is being discussed is a plea, not a presidential pardon like the one that completely cleared Richard Nixon of any crimes, there are still parallels. 

 Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening broadcast of Channel 14, November 27, 2021. (photo credit: MEIR ELIPOUR)
Opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening broadcast of Channel 14, November 27, 2021.
(photo credit: MEIR ELIPOUR)

On September 8, 1974, then-US-president Gerald Ford delivered a landmark speech to the Watergate-saturated American people.

“Theirs is an American tragedy, in which we all have played a part,” he said of the family of his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon. “It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that and, if I can, I must.”

Ford then went on to announce his highly controversial decision to pardon Nixon, just a month following the latter’s resignation.  This decision both defined Ford’s presidency, and – many maintain – undid it and led to his defeat by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election.

Historical parallels are famously imperfect, and there is no comparing Watergate to the cases against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it is instructive to look back at what transpired in the US in September 1974 in  weighing the merits and shortcomings of a possible plea deal under negotiation between Netanyahu and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit.

  The basic parameters of this deal would reportedly have Netanyahu convicted of fraud and breach of trust, his jail sentence commuted to community service, and a determination that his actions constituted “moral turpitude,” thereby barring him from politics for the next seven years.

 Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. He is something of a weather vane for the new government.  (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. He is something of a weather vane for the new government. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

While what is being discussed is a plea, not a presidential pardon like the one that completely cleared Nixon of any crimes, there are still parallels.

The most prominent can be found in the prime reason for pardoning Nixon, a man whose actions badly split an America already deeply divided by the Vietnam War.

 Ford argued that the pardon was necessary if the US was finally to move past the Watergate scandal that consumed the nation for some two years.  Ford believed that the pardon, instead of a long, protracted legal proceeding against the former president, was necessary for a healing process to begin.

“During this long period of delay and potential litigation, ugly passions would again be aroused. And our people would again be polarized in their opinions,” he said.

A pardon, he hoped, would put an end to that process. It didn’t, and the ghost of Watergate haunted Ford’s presidency.  Many believed that Ford – who was Nixon’s vice president – cut a deal with Nixon whereby in exchange for the president’s resignation, Ford would issue a pardon as a quid pro quo soon after he assumed office.

A Gallup poll taken immediately after the pardon found that 62% of the American public disapproved of it. This poll was taken in the heat of the moment, when emotions were still very raw.  Twelve years later, in 1986, another Gallup poll found that the numbers had switched, and now 54% believed that the pardon was the right thing to do.

There will be those who will protest loudly and passionately the day after a Netanyahu plea deal is signed. In fact, these protests have already started.

On the one hand, the anti-Netanyahu forces will shout that a plea deal will mean that justice was not done, that the principle of equal justice for all was trampled, and that community service and a seven-year ban from politics is not sufficient retribution for the crimes Netanyahu allegedly committed.

On the other side of the spectrum, pro-Netanyahu forces will argue that in Israel’s current super-charged atmosphere where the Netanyahu cases have been covered in the media ad nauseam from every conceivable angle,  the chances of Netanyahu ever getting an impartial decision are close to nil.  They will say that after the state spent hundreds of millions of shekels on these cases, and the judicial system put its prestige on the line to prosecute them, no judge – a product of this system – will be able to acquit Netanyahu, because to do so would be to justify the former prime minister’s charges that the whole saga was cooked-up to bring him down.

These arguments will be made loudly and passionately now.  But when asked 12 years from now whether putting an end to the Netanyahu saga was good for the country, many of those opposed to a plea deal today may very well – as the Americans did in the past century – have second thoughts.

Even Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two fabled Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story and vociferously opposed the pardon in 1974, said in a panel discussion in 2014 that in retrospect what Ford did was “an act of great courage” and the right move.

Most historians, according to a New York Times article in 2018, “now agree that Ford did the right thing for the country.” Had the trauma continued, it would have been difficult for anyone to govern.

That same argument can be used here as well. Seeing the Netanyahu trials through to their conclusion, having the courts render a verdict, will keep this issue at center stage and continue to split the country.  Neither would a final verdict end the issue once and for all. Rather, any verdict rendered would renew the corrosive debate over the independence and integrity of the judiciary.  In that debate there would be no winners, and the country would lose.

Though the pardon that Ford gave Nixon was “full and absolute,” and Nixon could have theoretically tried again to run for office, Nixon – 61 at the time – knew he had no chance of ever returning to significant elected office.

Netanyahu’s chances, however, might be a bit better. Under the terms of the plea being discussed now, if Netanyahu agrees to the “moral turpitude” designation he will be forced out of politics for seven years.

He is currently 72, meaning he could come back at 79. Impossible? Not if you look again at the American model.

US President Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election just two weeks shy of his 78th birthday. If he runs again in 2024, he will do so just before he turns 82. Another Netanyahu run, therefore, is not inconceivable.

But if he doesn’t run, a look at what Nixon did post-Watergate pardon might give a clue as to where Netanyahu could be headed. The Nixon model shows clearly that fading into oblivion need not await a post-politics  Netanyahu.

Within 14 years of resigning, Newsweek featured a cover story on the former president that few thought, on that day that he ignominiously left office, they would ever see. “He’s back,” read the headline, “The rehabilitation of Richard Nixon.”

Within years of leaving office in disgrace, Nixon’s books (he wrote 11 of them in retirement) were well received. He was paid handsomely for interviews and speaking engagements, and his advice was sought both by foreign leaders and US presidents keen on mining his rich diplomatic experience. Though the first year out of office was very difficult, Nixon bounced back and in later years his voice carried elder statesman-weight on diplomatic matters.

If Nixon could do that, Netanyahu could probably do so as well.

When Nixon died in 1994 at the age of 81, his funeral was attended by every living US president, as well as numerous foreign leaders who had either forgotten or forgiven his excesses in the White House.

Bill Clinton, who was president at that time, spoke of Nixon’s achievements and foreign policy successes and said, “May the day of judging president Nixon on anything less than his entire life come to a close.”

Likewise, a plea deal for Netanyahu that would put the former premier’s legal issues in the back mirror could speed up the day when Netanyahu can be seen and judged through a lens much wider than merely cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.  And moving past all that would be as good for the country, as it would obviously be for the Netanyahus.