High Crimes: How Israel Is Experiencing Its Own Watergate Affair

by Mishy Harman | November 14, 2011

Jerusalem—The Israeli Supreme Court ruled last week that, on December 7, the country will lose a little bit more of its innocence. For the first time in its history, the nation will witness a former president—Moshe Katsav—entering the gates of a prison, where he will begin serving a seven-year sentence for multiple counts of rape and sexual misconduct. Naturally, the ruling has dominated public discourse, relegating even the IAEA’s recent report on the Iranian nuclear program to the back pages. 

Politicians, jurists, and women’s right activists are all singing in one chorus that the verdict sent a strong message that justice is blind, and that no one—including the president—is above the law. The judicial system is repeatedly praised for not flinching while trying the former head of state, and a general self-congratulatory sentiment pervades. Having been wrapped up in the trial for the past five and a half years, there seems to be a communal voice of exultation: This shameful episode is finally over. But beyond the cathartic chatter, there is a deeper wound that has largely been repressed.

However well Israel’s judicial system acquitted itself, the country’s political system has been done grievous harm. This is not to imply that any tremendous political power resides in the ceremonial office of the president. In Israel’s parliamentary political system, the position of the president was intentionally designed to be extremely weak. The office was shaped, to a large extent, as a reflection of the power struggle between David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann in the early days of statehood. A chemistry lecturer at the University of Manchester, Weizmann served as president of the World Zionist Organization from 1920 to 1931, and again from 1935 until 1946, and was the driving force behind attaining the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British Foreign Secretary formally supported the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine.

Yet following WWII, his moderate, pro-British policies came into conflict with the strategies of the Zionist leadership in Palestine. It was not long before the staid, aging diplomat lost out to the younger and more combative David Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish Agency and the de-facto leader of the Jewish community of Palestine. After Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, he named his rival as the first president. But the autocratic Ben-Gurion had no intention of relinquishing any significant authority to Weizmann, and thus the presidency was stripped of real influence. Weizmann was increasingly marginalized, and bitterly lamented that “my handkerchief is the only place in which Ben-Gurion lets me poke my nose.” Frustrated, he once asked Israel’s first Foreign Minister, Moshe Sharett, what he was meant to do as president. “Be a symbol,” was Sharett’s unsatisfying answer.

Despite the ribbon-cutting character of the office of the president, however, its occupant is still Israel’s Head of State. It is the president who formally appoints prime ministers, who represents the country around the world, and is fashioned as a unifying, apolitical leader of the fragmented Israeli public. A consensus-maker, the president is expected to rise above the cynical reality of dirty politicking, and serve as the emblem of national solidarity: Many opinion polls over the years have confirmed the sitting president as the country’s most popular public official.

The Knesset—the country’s legislative body that elects the president—has done its best to select people of gravitas and distinction, often ignoring traditional party lines. Following Weizmann’s death in 1952, for example, an Israeli delegation flew to Princeton, NJ, where they offered the position to an elderly Albert Einstein. Though he declined, subsequent presidents have all been among Israel’s most highly regarded sons: Acclaimed scientists, esteemed military generals, renowned intellectuals, and men of letters. Katsav’s election to president in 2000 was, in this regard, a turning point. An ambitious politician from a small southern town who had immigrated to Israel from Iran at the age of five, Katsav was the youngest mayor in Israel’s history at 24. He subsequently served as a long-standing member of parliament, a minister, and deputy prime minister. Ironically, his election to president was primarily a political vote of no confidence in his then opponent (and ultimate successor), Shimon Peres—an internationally eminent statesman and Nobel Prize laureate who enjoyed little support at home. But Katsav’s selection also reflected a shifting zeitgeist: He symbolized the hard-working, religious Mizrahi, as opposed to the predominately Ashkenazi elitist secularists who preceded him, and the nation seemed ready for such a figurehead. The subsequent selection of Peres as Katsav’s replacement has fortunately managed to rehabilitate a good measure of the prestige of the office sullied by Katsav’s trial. 

Katsav is not, of course, the first public servant to be incarcerated in Israel—our former Ministers of Treasury and Labour are also currently in jail for siphoning off public funds and accepting bribes, respectively—but his verdict embodies a far gloomier message: It epitomizes the demise of the public’s faith in the presidency, and it breeds further disdain toward the country’s impoverished public sphere more broadly. Those who abuse their office do not only disgrace themselves, they erode the power of subsequent holders of their position to act honestly on Israel’s behalf. And perhaps even more significantly, they send a message to the country’s youth that politics is a loathsome calling, the realm of those who criminally use power for their own benefit.

In a 2009 interview with The Guardian, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel recalled a formative moment that shaped his moral reasoning: As a college student at Brandeis, Sandel got a summer internship at the Houston Chronicle’s Washington, D.C. bureau. It just so happened that that summer was 1974, and for the first time in American history a president was forced to resign. The Watergate scandal shattered much of the American public’s belief in government and politics, but what struck Sandel was the serious despondency of those members of Congress who discussed Nixon’s impeachment. He remembered approaching Barbara Jordan, a Democratic Congresswoman from Texas’ 18th district, for a quote after the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach the president. Sandel asked her how she felt following her vote and recalled, “she snapped at me. Her voice was breaking. She said: ‘I don’t feel like answering any questions from anybody at this moment.’ And she went off with tears in her eyes. She had no sympathy for Nixon, of course. But she was so moved by the gravity of the situation—by the sense of constitutional moment—that she would not speak. I was shaking. It was an innocent time, compared to the politics we have now.” 

Gerald Ford, we all know, controversially pardoned Nixon, and saved the former president the embarrassments of trial. It is to Israel’s benefit that Katsav did not enjoy the same privilege. But it is important to recognize that when he enters the prison gates in less than a month it will be a bittersweet day for Israel. In many ways, it will carry an optimistic message regarding the egalitarianism of the judicial system. But it will also have indelibly tarnished what is, and in Israel’s fragmented political landscape must remain, the highest office in the land.

Mishy Harman is a doctoral candidate in history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  

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