Israel is undoubtedly the most reliable ally the West has in the Middle East. But is she herself Western?
Some argue about the extent to which the ambient Middle Eastern culture has left an imprint on Israel’s mores, ethos and general social tone. This isn’t an argument I feel qualified to join.
However, it’s clear that a state younger than I am had to borrow its political models from elsewhere, and the West was happy to oblige. Mutatis mutandis Israel’s political system resembles ours, with executive power vested in the cabinet, legislative power in the Knesset, and the judiciary independent of either.
Moreover, like all truly civilised countries (well, Britain, to be exact), Israel has no written constitution, relying instead on a system of precedents. Sounds ideal so far, but alas here on earth we aren’t blessed with ideal systems. There’s got to be a damp squib somewhere.
As there is in Israel. For the democracy the Israelis largely borrowed from us came packaged with our hypocrisy, including the tendency to appeal to mythical political virtues for real political gain.
We pretend to expect pristine probity from our politicians, and they pretend to possess it. When they do something that shatters that expectation, our reaction depends on how we feel about their politics.
If a left-wing politician turns out to be less than angelic, all right-minded individuals are up in arms: doesn’t that Satan’s spawn realise that the moral standards of a democracy must exceed those in a Trappist monastery? And of course vice versa: a conservative politician overstepping the imaginary line instantly becomes the devil incarnate.
The nature of Western politics is such that the vice versa scenario is played out more often. Conservatism is alien to the post-Enlightenment ‘liberal’ culture, which is the area where most media operate.
To be elected, a conservative politician has to scale the barrier of generally hostile coverage. And once in office, he has to watch his step like a soldier negotiating a minefield. One tiny step in the wrong direction, and his career may explode into a red mist.
This brings us to Benjamin Netanyahu, the first standing PM to face prosecution in Israel’s history. Mr Netanyahu, who’s on trial not only for his career but also his liberty, denies accusations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Now, though I don’t follow Israeli politics as close as I should, I have followed Mr Netanyahu’s career ever since he was Deputy Foreign Minister, doing diplomacy in impeccable English, or whatever passes for it in the US, where he was educated.
My affection for politicians in general isn’t without certain in-built limits, but that disclaimer aside, I’ve always liked Mr Netanyahu. I see him as an extremely shrewd political operator with conservative instincts, but enough acumen to know when he has to compromise on them.
He certainly looks like the best Israeli PM in my lifetime, and most Israelis agree. After all, Mr Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, which is no mean feat in a country with a socialist DNA.
That tenure will end if he’s found guilty of the crimes he’s charged with. But how criminal are those crimes? I’ve looked at the indictment, and the only crime Mr Netanyahu seems to have committed is being, well, a politician.
Not a saint, not an angel, not a messiah – only a man who has to survive in the minefield of political rough-and-tumble. That’s a game played for keeps, and its rules are different from the charter of a Trappist monastery.
To be a player, one has to leaven one’s principles, moral and intellectual, with a certain amount of latitude demanded from a modern politician. It’s a game for big boys (of either sex), and those who can’t or won’t be big boys shouldn’t get into politics.
Being a big boy, Mr Netanyahu has been indicted on three counts, known as Cases 1,000, 2,000 and 4,000.
Case 1,000: He’s accused of receiving cigars and bottles of champagne from businessmen in exchange for favours.
I don’t know much about Israel, but our politicians certainly don’t come so cheap. The only favour a box of cigars or a bottle of bubbly will get you is a handshake. In today’s world, such things barely qualify as tokens of appreciation, never mind bribes.
Again, I’ll remind you for the last time that we aren’t talking about a Trappist monastery here, nor a Carmelite convent.
Case 2,000: Mr Netanyahu is accused of offering to boost the circulation of the newspaper Yediot Ahronot in exchange for positive coverage.
Now show me a politician who wouldn’t do that, and I’ll show you a figment of idealistic imagination.
In 1990, when I wrote ads for Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, he was asked if he’d fire any employee voting Labour. “No,” he said, “but I’d pay for his psychiatric examination.”
Imagine my surprise when all Murdoch papers, including the most conservative ones, came out for Tony Blair in 1997. Are you going to tell me that Rupert had undergone a change of heart and no quid pro quo was involved?
Please don’t; I’m not going to believe you. Yet I don’t remember any demands for an investigation, much less an indictment. Then of course our democracy has had more time to develop a cocoon of cynicism.
Case 4,000: Mr Netanyahu is accused of promoting regulations favourable to Shaul Elovitch, principal shareholder of Bezeq telecom giant, again in exchange for positive coverage on his news site.
That’s not strictly kosher, as it were, and perhaps Mr Netanyahu deserves a reprimand. But a criminal indictment? Oh please.
As I said, Mr Netanyahu denies all these charges, and I hope he’s found innocent. Yet even assuming for the sake of argument that he did do all those awful things, do they really constitute criminal corruption?
We can’t accuse politicians of corruption when they merely act as politicians. Criminal corruption starts not when a politician accepts a bottle of champagne, but when he enacts ruinous policies undermining his country’s national interests.
As far as I can tell, Mr Netanyahu isn’t guilty of that kind of corruption. Quite the opposite, he has served his country’s national interests with wisdom, courage and dignity. Throwing him to the howling leftie wolves would be unforgivable.