Moshe Katsav - Archive - 2007.
Moshe Katsav during a press conference in 2007. Photo by Limor Edrey / Archive
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After the death of Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion asked Albert Einstein to become Israel’s second president. To Ben-Gurion’s relief, Einstein turned down the offer, and there is little doubt that he would not have been suitable for the position, because he was unwilling, ever, to sacrifice his independence of thought for decorum and formality.

Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion thought that, given Einstein’s stature, he could not possibly steer clear of asking Einstein to take the position. It was clear that the presidency, while largely ceremonial, needed to be occupied by a person of stature.

As many politicians and pundits have pointed out, today is a sad day for Israeli society, even though it shows that Israel still has a judiciary that functions independently of the political echelon, and that the foundations of its democracy are still sound in certain respects.

And yet we need to ask the question how a man like Katsav could ever have been elected President of Israel. True: we needn’t assume that anybody in the Knesset knew of his sexual immorality, and Katsav’s rape conviction is not directly related to the mistake of electing him for president. And yet for all those who cast their vote for him, this must be a day of reckoning.

Katsav ran against Shimon Peres, Israel’s current president. Comparing Katsav to Peres, one must wonder what the Knesset members who voted for Katsav had in mind. Even those who do not agree with Peres’ political views cannot deny that his contribution to Israel has been tremendous. In addition, Peres is a man of culture, respected worldwide, and his presidency is one of Israel’s saving graces in dark times.

I remember the shock when I heard that Katsav had been elected. He was nothing but a mediocre career politician; a man whose claim to fame had, at best, been that he knew how to play his cards well. Rumors about his lack of civility (to put it mildly) were persistent. And indeed, throughout his presidency, he succeeded in making Israel look bad a number of times - even before the rape charges surfaced - with his lack of tact, culture and grace.

This needs to be a moment of soul-searching for our politicians. True, horse-trading is an inevitable aspect of politics everywhere. But a political system that maintains a minimum of honor and standards of quality should be capable of rising above narrow considerations of short-term gains, of tit-for-tat, and vying for tactical advantage.

Those who voted for Katsav should ask themselves: What did I know about this man? Did I really think he was suited for what is formally Israel’s highest office? Was I capable of thinking beyond petty party politics and personal gain when I cast my vote?

We should not expect politicians to be saints. But we may, and must, expect them to have a sense of decency and responsibility. We have the right to demand that they keep in mind that they are elected to represent the interests of the country they serve, and not just their own political careers.

This is a day of shame for all of us. But it should be a day of atonement for many of our parliamentarians. At a time, in which they propose laws with no regard for decency, justice and Israel’s long-term interest; in which they throw away tax money earned by hard work without regard for the public good, they should wonder how they contribute to the terrible deterioration of Israel’s public norms.

How has Israel deteriorated from a culture in which it was clear that Einstein had to be offered the presidency to a public atmosphere that allowed a man to be elected president who has ended up convicted of rape? How has it moved from electing people of culture, decency and achievement like Ben-Zvi, Shazar, Katzir, Navon and Herzog to electing Katsav?

Those of our parliamentarians who voted for Katsav and have retained the ability to take their attention off their mobile phones, the next deal and the next interview; those who have any ability left to think in solitude, should ask whether they have any standards of human quality left, and whether they are serving their country, or just their own careers.