Spiro Agnew, the U.S. vice president in the late 1960s and early 1970s who was compelled to resign his post after confessing in a plea bargain to accepting a bribe, is said to be responsible for the quip, "the bastards changed the rules and didn't tell me." It can be hoped that the verdict reached in the case of MK Tzahi Hanegbi that accorded moral turpitude to a perjury conviction will change the rules of Israeli politics by which the truth and the fulfillment of promises are not seen as supreme values.
A reality in which senior ministers have been convicted on charges of theft and bribe-taking overshadows the offense of false testimony to the chairman of the central election committee, the infraction for which Hanegbi was convicted. Eight years have passed since this transgression. Nonetheless, two judges on Jerusalem's Magistrate's Court, Aryeh Romanov and Oded Shaham, forthrightly rejected petitions sent by senior figures asking that turpitude not be accorded to Hanegbi. The judges acted prudently; they set a necessary normative standard whose gist is that upholding the value of truth is a precondition to the prosecution of justice.
The judges wrote: "The offense of perjury is an infraction which, in its very essence, is stained with a moral-normative defect, and it can thus be stipulated that this is an offense that has turpitude." The judges stressed that the offense's circumstances involved "a genuine moral flaw," since the matter did not involve a one-time statement made "under pressure," but rather testimony and a deposition submitted "with clear forethought."
The dissenting judge, Yoel Tzur, who opined in July that Hanegbi was not guilty of perjury, emphasized the extreme caution that must be exercised before turpitude is attributed to a Knesset member. He also pointed to Hanegbi's considerable suffering throughout an inquiry and trial that continued beyond any reasonable length of time. After all that has happened, the finding of turpitude brings with it immediate suspension from the Knesset, even before any appeal proceeding is undertaken.
The majority opinion correctly stressed that the imposition of turpitude is not only an ethical decision, but also one that pertains to the "status, dignity and prestige of the Knesset," a body that is supposed to serve as an "exemplary model of virtue."
Politicians' comportment is indeed a matter of public concern. The message sent by this verdict is an expectation of clean government and the rule of truth in government.
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