In a blunt shift from “there is nothing because there was nothing,” we are suddenly being asked to understand that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might be a hedonist or may have shown poor judgment, but “he’s not corrupt. He never put anything in his pocket.”
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Excuse me? To smoke thousands of dollars of cigars that he didn’t pay for; to guzzle pink Champagne costing thousands of dollars that didn’t come out his own pocket; to adorn his wife’s neck with jewelry that friends were happy to fund on demand; to employ an electrician, a mover and a caretaker at the public’s expense — and that’s just a partial list — is not corrupt behavior? And that’s before we even start taking about the other things of which he is suspected.
One of the arguments is that no one has proved that money was passed from an invisible hand to the prime minister’s. Let us recall that Section 293 of the Penal Code states, “In a bribery offense, it is irrelevant (1) If it was money, something of monetary value, a service or some other benefit; (2) If it was given for committing or avoiding an action, delay of an action; expediting an action; slowing an action; giving preference or discrimination; (3) If it was for a specific action or for general favoritism.” In other words, the law does not require a wad of cash to be passed in some dark alley from the sack of the bribe-giver into the prime minister’s attaché case.
But I would like to focus here not on the details of the penal code, which the judicial system is handling, or is meant to handle; I would like to focus on behavioral norms: not what is forbidden or permitted, but what is proper or improper. The weaker the public norms are in Israel, the more public conduct is governed by legal hair-splitting. Note well that the Supreme Court has not been strengthened; it has been weakened. The power of the law has not increased; it has been undermined. What has gotten stronger, more rooted and has spread like a weed is the foolish notion that anything that is not criminal is pure and innocent.
Yes, in a properly run state anything that is not forbidden is permitted, and a person is not imprisoned for doing something that is not forbidden. But to claim that as long as someone doesn’t have both feet in the criminal sewer he is a worthy leader is a very big stretch.
To prove how quickly the public moral norms in Israel have deteriorated, it’s enough to consider three signposts. The first, which took place in 1956, is the story of Uri Ben-Ari, a beloved commander whose way to being appointed army chief of staff seemed clear — until he decided to defend a master sergeant in his brigade who stole a sack of sugar from the kitchen, supposedly because was unable to feed his children. That sack of sugar made it all the way to the desk of then-Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion, who demanded that Ben-Ari either resign or stand trial. Ben-Ari, a hero of the War of Independence and the Sinai Campaign, a commander of armored brigades, resigned.
The second signpost was Leah Rabin’s illegal dollar account (1977). After the attorney general decided to prosecute her, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin didn’t blame the media and didn’t claim anyone was out to depose him, but said he was no less responsible than his wife, and resigned.
And today? Today a respected commentator on state television said, in a thoughtful and serious tone, said, “Cabinet ministers and Knesset members I spoke to told me that Netanyahu may be a hedonist, he may have made mistakes in judgment, but he’s not corrupt. He didn’t put anything into his pocket.”