Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Cabinet meeting, July 1, 2012.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Cabinet meeting, July 1, 2012. Photo by Flash 90
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Two recent reports by the state comptroller have depicted our prime minister and a number of his ministers to be guilty of various degrees of incompetence. The comptroller's 153 page reportdealing with the government's performance in the Turkish flotilla incident says that the decision making process "led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and under his responsibility was found to include essential and significant flaws." These defects may have lead to unnecessary deaths, danger and diplomatic disaster.

Soon after this report came the state comptroller's 506 page assessment of the government's response to the Carmel fire. This report assigned “special responsibility” to Interior Minister Eli Yishai for failing to prepare for disaster and for dealing with it inadequately when it struck. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz also stands accused of poor contingency planning. Yet, the finger of accusation quickly turns to Netanyahu himself: "The claims and disagreements between the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry [about funding for the fire service] accumulated on his table for a long time, and it was up to him to make a decision on the matter." Netanyahu's prevarication was a direct cause of the state of unreadiness from which our fire services suffered when the blaze erupted.

There is an ethic in the West of ministerial responsibility. It dictates that, at times, the noblest thing for an elected official is to resign. In 1977, Yitzhak Rabin resigned because a foreign bank account, dating to his time as Israeli ambassador to the U.S., remained open in Washington D.C., against Israeli law at that time. The account, which he shared with his wife, had apparently been left open only because of a clerical error on the part of his wife. Nevertheless, Rabin accepted joint moral and legal responsibility. Ignorance is no defense of criminality however minor the crime. Rabin rightly resigned.

It is an eroding value of the West that people should resign as a matter of honor. Where does it come from and is it a Jewish value? I've asked a number of Bible scholars and we couldn’t come up with a single instance of a Biblical character that resigned a position of his power on a matter of principle. That doesn't mean that to do so wouldn't be a virtue. In fact, King Saul seems to have lost the plot precisely because he wasn't willing to stand aside and allow David, God's anointed, to take the throne. The text seems to imply: he should have resigned.

Even Moses, it seems, had to be nudged toward retirement. On some readings of the text, notably the Abarbanel's, the reason offered for God's taking away Moses' life and leadership was a smokescreen for the real reason: Moses was old and better suited to leading the generation that had just past; it was time for a new leader.

But why didn't Moses see this for himself and stand aside? Perhaps, on this one issue, Moses had more in common with King Saul than we like to think: once he'd tasted the joys of power and leadership, he didn't want to give it up (except for a brief wobble in Numbers 11). A more sympathetic reading, conscious of Moses' great humility, might say that the leadership role had become so central to Moses' self-perception that he could no longer conceive of life without it. Two Midrashic traditions envisage God striking a deal with Moses: Moses can enter the Promised Land as long as he agrees to allow Joshua the leadership role; i.e., Moses is offered retirement instead of death. In both Midrashim, Moses eventually chooses death upon finding that it's too painful to watch Joshua in his place. Moses can't bring himself to retire, and so, he dies instead.

For various reasons, people are reticent to give up power. On the other hand, if a person is elected by the people, who is he, or the state comptroller, to say that things should be otherwise? Perhaps it would be immoral to resign: If you're given a job to do, and you make a mess, don't walk away; you have to clear it up first! And yet, there has to be some limit. If social workers found compelling evidence to suggest that a pair of parents were inept, eventually the children will have to be taken away. Similarly, hundreds of pages of detailed state assessment find our prime minister to be inept at certain vital tasks. Surely there should come a point in which the nuclear codes (if we have any) should be taken away. Has that point come already? The state comptroller doesn't seem to think so, having called for zero resignations.

On this issue, Jewish ethics doesn't immediately reveal an answer, but it does give rise to some questions that elected officials should ask themselves with probity: Why am I in this job? Am I serving myself, or a greater cause? And am I the best person for this role? Even to ask the question is to transform a career politician into a public servant, whether they decide to resign or not.

Dr Samuel Lebens holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London. He is currently studying toward Rabbinic ordination at Yeshivat Haretzion.