NOW THAT Israel is going to the polls on March 17, the air is befouled with gutter invective, accusations of treachery and thinly veiled racial baiting. The ruling Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, has been consumed for a month with complaints of malpractice and legal wrangles, arising from the primaries that were supposed to determine the composition of its slate of candidates. Yisrael Beitenu, the party led by the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is imploding under a wide-ranging criminal investigation for corruption. The largest Orthodox Jewish religious party, Shas, is headed by the Moroccan-born former interior minister Aryeh Deri, who served a prison term for bribery; after a party rival released uncomplimentary tape recordings of a speech by a dead rabbi, denouncing Deri, he theatrically resigned—only to reemerge, unabashed, a few days later (his party, meanwhile, split). Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former finance minister Avraham Hirschson have been sentenced to prison terms for financial crimes; former president Moshe Katsav is serving time for rape. And these are only the most prominent such cases in what some like to call “the only democracy in the Middle East.”
The first line of defense when such awkward facts are mentioned is invariably, as in the Kremlin of yore, the tu quoque: Israel, indeed, is far from alone in exhibiting grave defects in its governing elite. Is American political discourse these days, even in the once gentlemanly Senate, so civil? Is extremist populism unknown in Greece, Spain, France or Sweden? Is Italian public life a model of rectitude? Are politics untainted by religious fanaticism in Turkey or India or, for that matter, the United States? We look in vain in modern democracies for a latter-day Pericles or Demosthenes—and, if truth be told, even those paragons were accused in their own time of demagogy, warmongering, inconsistency, cowardice and peculation.
Nor is the disagreeable, often-hysterical tone of Israeli political debate altogether new. Politics here have always been a rough-and-tumble affair. Westminster-style courtesies have never been the rule. Even before the Jewish state was established, there were political murders in Palestine of Jews by Jews. As in America, the more closely we examine the characters and behavior of the founding fathers of Israel, the more blemishes we find.
Withal, there has been a perceptible decline in the standards of conduct of the Israeli political class. The other day I walked down a street in Tel Aviv past the former home, now a museum, of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. This was where he lived while leading Israel to independence and then to victory in the wars of 1948–1949 and 1956 (after the 1967 Six-Day War, he urged Israel to withdraw from its new territorial conquests). It is a spartan two-level dwelling, drably furnished, with one striking feature: the library, which runs from floor to ceiling around all the walls of several rooms. It comprises about twenty thousand volumes. Although Ben Gurion formally studied law in Constantinople, he was really an autodidact rather than a conventionally educated man. On visits to England in the 1930s, he would alternate calls on the Colonial Office with trips to Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, where he would stock up on classical texts. Anita Shapira’s new biography of Ben Gurion relates how his intimate friendship with a young Englishwoman was nurtured by a shared love of the ancients, especially Plato. She would write to him from London and send books from Blackwell’s. Apart from Shimon Peres, the last member of the founding generation, I cannot imagine any Israeli politician today who boasts a library half this size or quality.
And that was not even the whole of it. After his retirement, when he had retreated to the Negev desert kibbutz of Sde Boker, I met Ben Gurion. He was living in a small cabin that was crammed full of yet more books. A welcoming, gnome-like figure with white tufts of hair, he was a rumbustious, if one-sided, conversationalist, happy to reminisce about his relations with British, Arab and Jewish figures of the early twentieth century. He rambled on amiably far beyond the time allotted for our meeting.
Only at one point in the conversation did a cloud cross his brow. That was when I noticed, half-hidden among the massed tomes on an upper shelf, a television set. I was puzzled because, as prime minister, Ben Gurion had never permitted a television broadcasting service to be established in Israel. He thought it would lead to Americanization and a decline in Zionist cultural values. A little cheekily, I said to the old man that I was surprised to see the offending object perched there. Visibly cross, he tossed my remark aside, declaring that the set was a gift from an American friend and that he never watched it. I believed him: he much preferred browsing in Plato and Aristotle.
Ben Gurion’s successors Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir lived no less modestly. The same was true of the right-wing prime ministers after 1977, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Of course, even in those days, there were occasional scandals: in 1977, at the height of an election campaign, Yitzhak Rabin had to withdraw as prime minister (he could not formally resign since the law did not permit that after an election had been called) when his wife was discovered to have held an undeclared bank account in the United States. The offense was technical and the sum involved paltry, a couple of thousand dollars, dating from the time, not long before, when Rabin had served as ambassador in Washington. By comparison with the amounts in some current cases, it seems the most trifling of peccadilloes. Just the other day, the police announced that they were recommending the indictment of former defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer on charges of bribery, fraud, breach of trust and money laundering, involving millions of shekels. Only a few months ago, he was a Labor Party candidate for president of Israel. Now he has retired from politics, citing “health issues.”
When and why did the rot set in? Part of the answer lies in the Americanization that Ben Gurion feared. In its early years the Israeli political system was heavily influenced (not always for the better) by European models: by the legacy of the British mandate over Palestine between 1920 and 1948, which imparted a respect for the rule of law, a robust administrative structure and a more or less incorruptible civil service; and by the Central and Eastern European political frameworks out of which most Israeli politicians of that period emerged. From revolutionary Russia the Zionists acquired a belief in the supreme importance of political ideology and devotion to a movement that encompassed every sphere of social life. Many learned their tactics and earned their spurs in the viciously illiberal political culture of interwar Poland. When it came to constructing a parliament, they copied the electoral systems of the Russian Constituent Assembly of 1917 and of Weimar Germany. These provided for the purest possible form of proportional representation: party lists elected by a single national constituency. The effect was to make it almost impossible for any party to win an overall majority in the Knesset, Israel’s single-chamber parliament. All governments have been coalitions, and small minorities, notably the Orthodox Jewish religious parties, have wielded disproportionate power in almost every government.
IN RECENT decades, however, Israeli politics have moved in a different direction. Put bluntly, the country’s political life has become heavily Americanized. Television and social media have replaced public meetings. Ideological mentors have given way to image consultants. Polling is incessant. Meretricious, often-mendacious advertising is ubiquitous. Above all, as in the United States, money has assumed an ever more central role in the political process. Figures like Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire Republican casino mogul, throw around both cash and antidemocratic rhetoric. Adelson owns Israel’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, which is given away for free and invariably supports Netanyahu and the settler movement in Israeli-occupied territories. In response to suggestions that, as a result, democratic values are under threat in Israel, Adelson recently scoffed, “So Israel won’t be a democratic state, so what?”
To some extent, the decline is a matter of personalities. Menachem Begin, notwithstanding his fiery speeches, behaved with a gentlemanly courtesy that often infuriated his enemies all the more. Shimon Peres, in spite of a persistent reputation for deviousness, hewed to a civilized level of public discourse and maintained friendships across political boundaries—for example, with the late Ariel Sharon.
With Netanyahu we encounter a different kind of personality. He used to be photographed at his desk in front of a shelf of books (the blue bindings of the Encyclopaedia Judaica) but I got into hot water once for speculating about whether he had ever actually cracked any of them open. The son of a professor (albeit an unsuccessful and embittered one), he seems to have recoiled from any suspicion of intellectual avocations. On one occasion I visited him in New York when he was serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Upon arriving, his secretary instructed me to go straight in to his room. The ambassador was lolling on his chair with his legs on the desk, talking on the phone. He saw me enter but did not greet me or interrupt his conversation, nor invite me to be seated. He carried on like this for about ten minutes, uttering an unbroken series of crude obscenities to his unseen interlocutor. His manners barely improved when he turned his attention to his guest.