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Sunday, August 3, 2008

American and Israeli Politicians Suffering From Similar Character Flaws

The difference between the statements politicians make when they are running for office or when they are shrouded in the power of office is the breach through which the public loses its confidence in its leaders.

Immediately after Eliot Spitzer, governor of New York, resigned after being linked to a prostitution ring, his successor, David Paterson, admitted he had cheated on his wife and tried drugs. Spitzer resigned because he broke the American code, which posits that a leader's views on morality cannot contradict his actual behavior. Paterson was quick to reveal his actions to the public in order to avoid a similar conundrum.

Israeli politicians now preparing to run for the premiership, whether in the Kadima primary or in elections for the Knesset, would do well to learn from Paterson. However, Israel is not the United States and the code of behavior in the two countries is not identical. This said, Ehud Olmert's announcement that he plans to step down in the near future as the country's leader is proof of a new standard vis-a-vis the public's expectations of those who aspire to lead it: People will not tolerate public figures who lead corrupt lives.

Contrary to Olmert's announcement - that his decision to resign will allow the police, prosecution and media to be more permissive in dealing with politicians under investigation - the norm apparent in his defeat is the opposite: The state's future leaders are required to be clean, otherwise they may find themselves in the same spot Olmert is in today.

Olmert's surrender to public pressure may signal a positive change in the conduct of Israel's heads of state. Just as Yitzhak Mordechai's conviction left its mark on the relations between senior officers and subordinate female soldiers; as Moshe Katsav's removal from office created a welcome precedent to protect women against sexual harassment in the civil service; as the airing of complaints against Professor Eyal Ben-Ari, whether justified or not, will usher in fresh air to the dark corners of academia's corridors - so does Olmert's resignation serve as a vaccination against moral corruption in politics. Olmert was forced to end his tenure not because he was found guilty in a legal process, but because his conduct was perceived to be unacceptable in the eyes of the public.

Those in Kadima competing for Olmert's post, as well as the heads of Likud and Labor, must now evaluate their actions well and decide whether they have anything to announce to the public - before they ask, once more, for its confidence. This state will be undermined if every other day it needs to come to terms with its leadership's dubious behavior, which gives way to investigations and legal wranglings. If, after one of the four - Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shaul Mofaz or Tzipi Livni - is elected prime minister, credible information about their past conduct is brought before the state comptroller, police commissioner or attorney general, the public will lose its trust in its leadership entirely, and the ability of Israel's democracy to continue functioning will be severely harmed.

For this terrible scenario not to come true, the four need to be brave and honest with the public: Have they left behind any mines in their public lives - in terms of unacceptable behavior - that may explode precisely when they are at the top? They must know that they have competitors, but also colleagues, who will not hesitate to latch on to any stains from their past to challenge them and bring about their downfall. Since the public is exhibiting less willingness to accept corrupt behavior, as Olmert's case proves, it is advisable that all four candidates for the premiership consider carefully the degree to which they are immune to embarrassing probes.

Otherwise, they will find themselves in the same situation Olmert was in last week, on Wednesday evening at 8 P.M.: standing before the entire country, not looking at them directly, admitting the mistakes he has made in the past that are now forcing him to resign. This is the same Olmert who two months earlier declared he was looking the public straight in the eyes and telling them he did not put a single shekel in his own pocket. The difference between the statements politicians make when they are running for prime minister or when they are shrouded in the power of office, and the truth that is revealed in police investigations and journalistic probes, is the breach through which the public loses its confidence in its leaders.

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