Survival of the unfittest

We the people must demand higher moral standards from our politicians.

hanegbi at court_311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
hanegbi at court_311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For Israeli politicians, it seems, a criminal conviction is no reason to shy away from public life. Nor is it seen as a barrier to future campaigns for election to parliament or even the top echelons of government. Several high profile cases over the past few years bear this out.
The most recent is the latest twist in the Tzachi Hanegbi saga.
Hanegbi, a former justice minister, was found guilty of perjury, a crime, which in the judges’ majority view, entailed moral turpitude.
This, however, did not stop Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from offering Hanegbi a ministerial post as reward for his role in trying to break up the opposition Kadima party and entice potential defectors to join Netanyahu’s government.
Hanegbi, then a member of Kadima who has now rejoined the Likud sans defectors, did not have the integrity to say no. From his point of view, exploiting the opening Netanyahu had created for him to rekindle a flagging political career was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Hanegbi is not the only elected official to see the courts as a limp bureaucratic arm of government. For Arye Deri (ex-Shas), Haim Ramon (ex-Kadima) and Ehud Olmert (Kadima), for example, public opinion is far more important than the learned verdicts of the judges, including those of the Supreme Court. Deri served a prison term for bribery and breach of trust; Ramon, also a former justice minister, was convicted of a non-consensual indecent act on a woman soldier; and Olmert, who is awaiting the outcome of another corruption indictment, was found guilty of breach of trust.
For all three of them, what their supporters and the media are saying carries more weight than criminal court rulings based on witnesses and evidence. These alternative “proceedings” in the court of public opinion are conducted by well-oiled PR machines who enlist like soldiers called up for duty. Their role is to effect a public make-over, which turns criminals into victims.
In their book, the victim is not the loyal public whose trust the official in question betrayed, but the official who transgressed. They would like us to believe that their man was given a raw deal, and that he was just doing his job. A cursory glance at Hanegbi’s website shows exactly that. “I was convicted on the basis of false testimony,” he writes. “I respected the court’s decision and after 22 years of consecutive service, I was forced to resign from the Knesset. Although I paid a heavy price, I learned an important lesson in public conduct.”
True, Hanegbi’s statement shows a certain awareness of the problematic nature of what he did, more so than Ramon or Deri. Nevertheless, this does not mean that it is appropriate for him to return to public life.
On the contrary, we should be guided by what the late Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohen said about moral turpitude. “A moral defect signifying that someone is unworthy of belonging to the community of honest men clearly disqualifies him from exercising authority for decisions and actions on which public affairs and the general good depend.”
When former US President Richard Nixon ran for office in the 1960s, Americans were asked, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” The people of Israel should ask themselves the same kind of question when they enter a polling booth and are confronted with ballots bearing the names of politicians convicted in court.
Public service is hard work. But the people who go into politics do so by choice. They thrust themselves into the limelight and must take care to maintain the highest moral standards. It is a question of leading by example and setting the moral tone for the country as a whole.
We the people should demand nothing less. After all, this is the mandate we have given them.
The writer is an attorney and i founder and chairman of the Jerusalem-based Movement for Quality Government.