Opinion |

Israel’s Gate Crashers Are Beating the Gatekeepers

Amid Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to skirt corruption charges, the country’s moral decay is similar to that of Vichy France

uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, listening to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, November 2014.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, listening to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit during the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, November 2014.Credit: AP
uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman

In his 1960 autobiographical novel “Promise at Dawn,” Romain Gary captures the atmosphere in France when it surrendered to Nazi Germany: the terror spread by the Vichy government, which planted fears of an internal enemy everywhere (a communist “fifth column”); the longing for a strong military leader who would rescue the country from its troubles; the tendency of the ordinary citizen to adjust to the situation, to concentrate on his everyday problems and put his faith in the authoritarian leader (Marshal Petain); the belief that the leader puts the good of the country first and sets aside his personal preferences and hatreds; and that familiar human weakness – surrendering quickly to more powerful forces.

Gary puts his finger on the long and unacknowledged process that France went through at that time. He likens it to a poisoned brew that the mundane habits of life dripped little by little into the mouths of the French, who learned to live with the slightly sweet taste of humiliation and surrender to the emerging reality. People from all parts of society, including intellectuals, skeptics and compassionate thinkers, capitulated to human nature and the powerful temptation to adjust to the situation.

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Despite all the obvious differences, these characteristics can also be seen in the Israel of early 2019. For three years, Israeli society has been undergoing a similar process of acclimating to deteriorating governmental norms without enough forces from within halting the landslide. The kinds of behavior that the French writer discerns in his heartbreaking memoir (and which has been identified in other societies in deep crisis) are also arising here.

The seeds of this crisis lie in the erosion of what is the appropriate norm. Moral consensuses that held sway for decades in Israel and shaped people’s expectations of the leaders and therefore of the country are becoming objects of scorn. They are being usurped by a supposedly more worthy and modern set of values, but these values, too, are constantly changing based on the leaders’ changing needs. Essentially, the country is being subjected to a relentless conceptual shake-up in which the bar keeps getting lower and the public is left lost and confused.

The corruption investigations into Benjamin Netanyahu illustrate this well. In terms of the moral view before 2016, the conduct attributed to the prime minister – accepting a million shekels’ worth ($270,000) of gifts, misuse of state funds for personal needs, exploiting his regulatory power to benefit interested parties – was considered despicable. But the prime minister and those acting at his behest, with the unanimous backing of Likud’s Knesset members, set the bar lower for judging this conduct: Is it or isn’t it criminal?

Once the criminal proceedings (the police investigation) began, Netanyahu and his minions set the bar even lower: How fairly are the police treating him? As the investigation progressed, the debate came to focus on whether sympathetic press coverage in return for favors really amounts to bribery. (“Where are the cash-stuffed envelopes?”)

When the investigation reached its final stages, yet another measure was proposed: Would it be right for the police to publish their recommendations or should that be left to the attorney general? And now Netanyahu’s emissaries are lowering the bar even further: How appropriate and wise is it to charge a sitting prime minister?

France's Marshal Philippe Petain in Vichy, central France, June 9, 1941.Credit: ,AP

Thus, in a speedy process of just three years, Netanyahu and his people have done away with the criteria by which his moral fitness to lead the country was supposed to be measured. What back in 2016 was considered abominable behavior that would disqualify him from public office has become a defiant argument whose scope keeps shrinking to ever more technical issues. These include the questions of when the attorney general should announce a decision on whether to bring charges, how long the preparation period for a hearing should be, and why didn’t Netanyahu get a chance to confront the people who turned state's evidence?

Without enough attention being paid, Netanyahu and his helpers have dulled Israelis’ senses and gotten them to tune out the real meaning of this scandalous behavior. The prime minister has betrayed his duty to lead the people with honesty and integrity. He has tried to reduce the allegations to procedural issues so he can dodge any legal consequences. His party, and most of the parties in the Knesset (the outgoing one and, it seems, the next one too) either support him or surrender to his will.

There are more gate crashers than gatekeepers. And Israelis, like the French in 1940 as so keenly depicted by Romain Gary, are accepting the degeneration that has afflicted them since their immune systems became systematically poisoned.

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