The birth of political virtue
Former Knesset member Yinon Magal is no paragon of personal virtue. The rookie lawmaker from the Bayit Yehudi, who left a successful career in journalism to enter politics resigned his position last month when he found himself drowning in a pool of muck of his own making.
Magal resigned last month after one after another, four women alleged that he had sexually mistreated them in various ways. The media gave the allegations saturation coverage. And Magal walked away from the Knesset and public life, quickly putting an end to the story.
While clearly no personal saint, in resigning from office, Magal acted with public virtue. He owned up to his mistakes and he took responsibility for the consequences of his behavior.
This might not seem like a big deal, but in the toxic environment that has come characterize Israeli politics over the past 25 years, Magal’s willingness to pay a personal price for his behavior was a very big deal. It was a big deal because it signaled the beginning of the end of a very troubling era in Israeli political life.
For the past 25 years, the role of the politician in politics has become smaller and smaller. Rather than take the initiative and lead the country in the direction they pledged to the voters they would move – whether on issues of war and peace, economics, culture or health policy – for decades politicians have stood behind lawyers and waited to be given permission to make a move.
The shrinking of our politicians has been the flip side of the massive, extralegal expansion of the powers of government lawyers.
25 years ago, the Supreme Court conducted its “judicial revolution.” Then chief justice Aharon Barak made the legally scandalous decision that you don’t need standing to file a petition against the government. The Court then ruled itself the power to abrogate the laws of the Knesset. Following the Court’s lead, the attorney general and state prosecutors decided that every bill before the Knesset and every government action was contingent on their approval.
Rather than stand up to the legal fraternity, for two decades, politicians have hidden behind it. When confronted by constituents fed up with their failure to fulfill their promises to voters, politicians insisted that they were just as frustrated as the public. They would be fulfilling their campaign pledges if it weren’t for the legal fraternity.
In other words, rather than passing laws to check the power of the Supreme Court and rein in the Attorney General, politicians have sufficed with whining.
Magal could have gone that route. He could have stayed in office, hired a fancy criminal lawyer, and dared the four women to file criminal complaints against him. Had he done so, he probably would have finished out his term. He might have even won.
Instead, Magal accepted that regardless of the legality of his misbehavior, it was behavior unbefitting a public servant. So he resigned.
If Magal’s public virtue doesn’t make him a hero, it is because his virtuous decision wasn’t made in a vacuum.
Magal is just one of a growing number of elected officials who refuse to wait for lawyers to tell them what to do.
Consider the current public storm over European-funded Israeli-registered NGOs staffed by Israelis, paid to demonize Israel.
For the past several years, Knesset members have tried repeatedly to pass laws to deny tax benefits to anti-Israel political groups like Breaking the Silence and B’tselem that receive their funding from foreign governments. Every time lawmakers have introduced bills, they have run into a battery of radical lawyers at the Justice Ministry who insist that Israel must continue to give tax breaks to foreign funded anti-Israel organizations. Doing otherwise, they are told, would amount to a curtailment of freedom of speech.
And so, to date, lawmakers have been forced to suffice with watered down statutes that do little to curb the ability of these groups to criminalize our soldiers, demonize law abiding citizens and delegitimize Israel’s right to exist.
In recent weeks, our political leaders have discovered that passing laws isn’t the be all and end all of their power.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, for instance, has recognized the power of the bully pulpit.
Last week President Ruby Rivlin enraged his former constituents on the Right by accepting an invitation to speak at an arguably anti-Zionist conference in New York organized by the far-Left Haaretz newspaper and the New Israel Fund. Rivlin’s former supporters took particular umbrage at that fact that also speaking at the conference were representatives of Breaking the Silence.
Breaking the Silence is funded by the EU for the purpose of publishing false allegations of war crimes against the IDF. Ahead of his trip to the US, politicians led by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked beseeched Rivlin not to participate in the conference, arguing that by doing so, he legitimized Breaking the Silence.
Rivlin disregarded their calls. Worse, still, in his speech before the conference, he sufficed with anodyne statements about the morality of the IDF. Rivlin said nothing against those in the audience and sharing the stage with him that take leading roles in the movement to demonize and delegitimize Israel and wage economic warfare against it.
The political Right, including the new television station Channel 20, excoriated Rivlin for his behavior. The political Left, including Channel 2, accused the Right of inciting against Rivlin. Things reached a climax last week at the Knesset when opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog demanded that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu condemn what he alleged were acts of incitement against Rivlin.
Until recently, politicians like Netanyahu routinely joined the Left in accusing of incitement right wingers who criticize the Left. Yet last week, rather than bow to Herzog’s demand, Netanyahu condemned incitement, insisted there is a difference between criticizing a politician and inciting violence, and then demanded that Herzog condemn Breaking the Silence that “libels IDF soldiers internationally.”
Two days before Netanyahu demanded that the Left condemn Breaking the Silence, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett had already taken executive action against the group.
Neither Yaalon nor Bennett waited for politicized, unelected lawyers to tell them what they could or could not do to protect Israel from Breaking the Silence and other EU-funded groups of its ilk. Rather, they did their jobs. Bennett banned them from operating in public schools. Yaalon barred access to the IDF for members of Breaking the Silence.
Netanyahu’s rhetorical assault on Breaking the Silence, like Yaalon’s and Bennett’s executive actions may seem like no big deal. But they are a big deal. They are a big deal because just a couple of years ago, no one was doing anything like this. Politicians were not standing up to these groups. They were not using any of the powers at their disposal to discredit and disempower them.
For years, Breaking the Silence members infiltrated the IDF, just as Machsom Watch – another European-funded group dedicated to demonizing the IDF — was invited to provide sensitivity training to IDF commanders. No one questioned the practice.
Members of these groups lectured school children about the evils of Israel and the “settlers,” and encouraged them not to serve in the IDF. Almost no one objected.
Precious little was done against these subversive groups because it was argued that since they have the right to speak freely, the IDF and the Education Ministry have a duty to give them a platform.
From the moment the news broke last Thursday that Likud heavyweight, Interior Minister Silvan Shalom was accused of sexually harassing several women who worked for him in recent years, Magal’s resignation hung over the story like a huge question mark. The question everyone was asking was whether Shalom would follow Magal’s example and resign from politics or remain on and wait for the lawyers to take over. Four days later, Shalom resigned.
Maybe incoming Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit will abandon his predecessors’ course and work to rein in the legal fraternity over which he will preside. Maybe not. But whether the legal fraternity accepts that its unbridled seizure of power from elected officials is coming to an end or not, it is clear that a new politics is coming into its own.
In this new political environment, elected officials are realize they are not victims. They are not powerless. And they have a sacred duty to serve the public that elects them. In this new reality, the power of the legal fraternity cannot help but be reduced, because they will no longer be viewed as the sole arbiter of our politicians.