The Adultery Test

Israeli society accepts substandard behavior of its elected officials as long as it does not receive the official stamp of criminality.

Fifteen years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu admitted in a dramatic television appearance to an extramarital affair. It was at the height of elections for the Likud leadership, and Netanyahu accused his opponents (alluding to David Levy) of intent to blackmail him by releasing footage of him and his lover. This strange spectacle became a fiasco that haunts the Likud leader to this day: Not only was no tape ever revealed, not only had David Levy not concocted any plot of the type Netanyahu ascribed to him (Netanyahu subsequently apologized for this), but the man who had presented his candidacy as leader of the country appeared to have buckled under pressure and did not identify the values that impact the political choices of the electorate: Israeli voters do not care about their leaders' marital infidelities, but they do expect them to keep their cool in a crisis.

America is less forgiving, apparently, when it comes to elected officials who betray their wives. Otherwise the report hinting at an affair by Senator John McCain would not threaten his chance of becoming the Republican Party's presidential candidate. Whoever leaked the story wanted to damage McCain, presuming that American political culture - at least openly (and particularly the conservative wing) - considers extramarital relations to be a stain. In retrospect it is not clear whether the shot struck home: McCain's campaign says it was prepared for harmful publicity (the gossip was already known), and successfully deflected it, diverting the debate from McCain's relationship with his wife to journalistic ethics and the candidate's ability to deal with crisis.

There have been American politicians (Senator Gary Hart, president Bill Clinton) for whom infidelity to their wives was not what stood in the way of their future in public life, but rather damage to another moral value - fidelity to the truth. There have also been opposite cases (Senator Larry Craig, who offered to resign, his wife by his side, immediately after he was suspected of picking up a man in a public bathroom).

In Israel, in any case, the love life of politicians is not an active interest of the media, and apparently not of the public either; if the fidelity of public figures to their spouses was a criterion for disqualification, the political arena over the generations would have lost no small number of well-known individuals. The Israeli code determines, wisely, that the intimate life of politicians is their own business as long as it does not negatively impact their public role. As opposed to the test the American voter administers, Israelis in recent years show great clemency when it comes to other weaknesses of its elected officials that clearly do influence their public conduct.

Ariel Sharon won the 2001 elections overshadowed by his conduct in the First Lebanon War and the conclusions of the Kahan Commission and the court that he acted improperly toward prime minister Menachem Begin. In 2003 he swept another election in the face of investigations linking him to improprieties.

Ehud Olmert won the 2006 elections despite a hovering cloud with regard to his public activities: the Likud bank accounts affair, in which he was exonerated but was determined to have acted unethically; private real estate dealings that raised concerns as to whether they were conduct fitting a public figure; cronyism attributed to him in some of his previous posts.

Complaints about the way Olmert navigates the line between personal interests and his public post came to the fore fully only after he was elected prime minister and have not yet been put to the public test - but the experience of recent years has shown that if they are not translated into the language of a formal legal conviction, they will not hinder him in future campaigns for public office.

Israeli society accepts substandard behavior of its elected officials as long as it does not receive the official stamp of criminality. Unlike in the U.S., candidates' integrity and devotion to the truth are not especially important to Israeli voters.