Israel’s Evasion of Moral Responsibility

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Arye Dery in the Knesset in 2015.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Arye Dery in the Knesset in 2015.Credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Arye Dery is about to become a court case, yet again. A petition has already been filed against his reappointment as Israel’s interior minister - the post in which he took bribes that bought him a prison term.

In his last days in office, Attorney-General Yehudah Weinstein gave his ambivalent approval for the appointment. Now the High Court of Justice will have to rule on whether the move is legal.

Consider the possibilities. If the court overturns the cabinet's decision, most or all of the political right will rage once more against what it sees as judicial overreach, and will cite this case as one more reason to reduce the power of the court. If the justices rule for Dery, the rest of the political spectrum will collectively grind its teeth. The keyboard-pounding class will write that the appointment is "kosher, but stinks" - the standard phrase for such situations. And then life will go on, because the legal battle has been lost.

Herein lies an issue bigger than Dery's future. In the Israeli political realm, the question of whether something is appropriate or embarrassing, responsible or reckless, consistently gets replaced by, "Is it legal?"

When Dery was convicted in 1999, the court ruled that he'd committed a crime of moral turpitude. Under the law, this barred him from public office for seven years from the end of his full prison term (even though he got out early for good behavior). That time has passed. The Supreme Court can reasonably say that the law gives it no grounds to intervene.

Fine. But do you, personally, feel satisfied that the legal decision settles the matter? That it's appropriate for someone convicted of misusing public office to be in parliament, much less behind the ministerial desk where he committed the offense? Can you look me in the eye and claim that the legitimacy of government is not fractured by this? Would you not think it far better for the prime minister to say, "It's just not done," rather than appoint Dery to any cabinet post?

Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't think thoughts like, "It's just not done."

If Netanyahu had such a sensibility, if our political environment demanded that he simply pretend to have such a sensibility, he would not wait to see whether the attorney general decides that his wife, or he himself, should be indicted for using public funds to fix up their private home.  His long string of incidents of questionable use of public office - so far, all "kosher but stinking" - would be reason enough to embarrass him off the public stage.

If Netanyahu's Likud were concerned with propriety, it wouldn't need to wait for an indictment of Knesset Member Oren Hazan for filing a false deposition about his campaign expenses. Hazan's behavior since entering the Knesset last year - capped by mocking a wheelchair-bound colleague from the Knesset podium - would be reason for his fellow party members to write his resignation letter for him and demand that he go home.

To be fair, the preference for legality over legitimacy isn't confined to the right. Before the 2013 election, there were centrist politicians and activists excited at the idea that ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert would make a comeback as a candidate for prime minister. The first of his corruption trials had ended with acquittal on a number of charges - and conviction "only" for breach of trust. His election slogan could have been the Hebrew version of Louisiana's famous "Vote for the crook. It's important." Fortunately, when the prosecution appealed his acquittals, he bowed out - not out of shame, but a realistic sense that his legal troubles weren't over.

The reflex of preferring legal disputes to political debate applies to policy, not just to personalities. The endless effort to delegitimize Breaking the Silence is a good example. In a 2009 interview that resurfaced last week, incoming attorney-general Avihai Mandelblit criticized the veterans' organization because it "doesn't help us to get to witnesses" for investigating violations of military law. Mandelblit was the IDF's legal chief, the advocate-general, when he made that comment - but even in that role he showed a complete misunderstanding of Breaking the Silence's role. And the same criticism of the organization has regularly been made by other public figures.

The central purpose of gathering and publishing soldiers' testimony about service in occupied territory or their combat experience in Gaza isn't to provide evidence in court. It is to tell the Israeli public what it is sending its sons and daughters to do. It's for us, as a society, to confront facts about the cost of occupation. To judicialize - to expect that testimony to lead to the indictment of this lieutenant or that corporal - is an evasion of responsibility and democratic debate.

Here the hypocrisy of the right is blatant. It wants evasion - of talking about the occupation, about the moral cost of imprisoning refugees, about censoring what high school students read. It labels people who raise those issues as traitors. Its repression of debate leaves legal suits as the last path to opposition. If the right wants a mug shot of the culprit in bringing the courts into the political arena, it needs merely to snap a selfie.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG