A good friend asked me how I felt about Sara Netanyahu receiving a regular delivery of Dom Perignon from Amnon Milchan. When I asked why her choice of a fine champagne should matter to me, I was informed that in exchange for this and others gifts, the movie mogul asked a political favor of Netanyahu. I decided to do some research about this and found that it is a much more complicated matter than I had first assumed.
Reports in the Israeli press are so contradictory as to make a conclusion for mere mortals quite impossible. Apparently the two families have been friends for a very long time and the idea that a billionaire like Milchan would give fine champagne and cigars to his close friends does not come as any kind of a surprise. For those who have massive wealth, buying their friends excessive gifts means little to them. Heads of State have been receiving gifts of value for a very long time from their friends and associates. As long as there is no expectation of a “pay back”, to my mind, it matters not. My dear friend went on to speak of my heroine, Golda Meir. “Did you know” she asked, “that when Golda bought a record player, she called the Israeli customs to be sure she would be charged the duty?!” Herein lies the disconnect for us all. We pine for leaders like Golda, Menachim Begin, Theodore Herzl and David Ben Gurion. In their place we have real flesh and blood men like Olmert, Katsav and a hoard of others who have been found guilty of serious misdeeds while in office.
In this environment of “shameing”, a new culture has evolved in which the favorite tactic for destroying one’s political enemy, is simply to accuse them of moral mis-adventure . It doesn’t matter whether it can be proven. The accusation alone can destroy a career. The old adage that “where there is smoke – there is fire,” may be true. But often when the smoke clears, the accusations may prove to be over-blown and still they leave the accused quite destroyed in the process. This is of course the goal, and it has been effective in political coups all over the globe.
This situation has brought forth a new kind of politician. While we long for our heroes and heroines who created the State of Israel, we forget that theirs was a serious undertaking, to save their people from their enemies throughout the world. Leaders with a mission, who came from poverty and who were the founding fathers of the State of Israel led a people with no resources other than their hands, their backs and their dreams. They were humble and passionate and their memory inspires us all. If they did deals behind closed doors, it was to acquire munitions for the soldiers, medicines for the public, fuel and spare parts for aircraft, seeds for essential crops, and clients for a new national economy. They had little greed for themselves and no expectation of great wealth or pay-offs at the end of the day. Their reward was the legacy they left behind having built a land and a future for the Jewish people. If you have the chance to go to the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and take their tour, you will see the re-creation of the apartment Begin lived in all his life. Simple and small, it almost takes one’s breath away. It was typical of the lifestyle of most Israelis building the State.
But those days are gone now. Politicians are no longer pure of purpose. They are bred from a culture very different than their predecessors. Political life is now a profession like all others. While a love of their country, cities, people, and culture may have inspired the career choice – today’s leaders no longer consider abstinence from the “good life” to be a requirement for serving their public. Internationally, Prime Ministers and Presidents have taken full advantage of their opportunities. Michelle Obama was repeatedly reported ordering refrigerated trucks full of lobsters to be waiting for her family when they went to small towns for different events. Their grandiose vacations were paid for by the taxpayers as were the lobsters. Tony and Cherie Blair vacationed in endless luxury at the home of Cliff Richards in Barbados. Their long term friendship resulted in Blair supporting Sir Cliff’s campaign to extend performers’ copyrights on songs from 50 to 75 years. Friendships do that. They bring preferential treatment. It is not rocket science. “Protexia” has been a way of life in the world for millennia. When we benefit from it, we are delighted. When those we dislike do it… they are fair game. Trying to prove it is criminal is a very murky process.
Consider the speaking fees of world leaders like Clinton, Obama and Shimon Peres. I was privy to the fact that more than fifteen years ago Peres charged $350,000 to go to London to speak for a charity there Hillary Clinton’s speaking fees went to the half million dollar mark and setting up charitable foundations to receive monies in the multi-millions for favors to be returned at a later date has become a normal occurance among politicians with fame and power. Whether these benefits cross the lines of legality really depend on how the laws of each nation are written. If they have been left purposely vague, therein lies the problem.
These dilemmas are all a matter of degree and must be weighed in some realistic fashion. When a politician receives bundles of cash and then awards building contracts to the donor’s companies, the situation is clear. When they receive bottles of champagne or expensive cigars over a period of years and are later asked for a favor (if it indeed even happened) … it is a horse of a slightly different color. It depends on what the favor is, and whether it somehow impinges on the implicit contract of public trust accepted by the elected official.
What I ask, is for us all to stand back and reassess the new realities. We no longer live in an age of austerity. We are quite content to ask our leaders to work every hour of their day for years on end, and yet we deny them pleasures which come from their associations. Is what they do so serious? I want to suggest that once we are in this quagmire, that we must in all fairness take each perceived infringement on its own merit and decide. They are public figures and must expect public scrutiny. But the laws of the land need to reflect exactly what level of behavior is expected and to delineate when the public expectations have been abused. The very people who need to make these laws are those who benefit most from their laxity.
To even consider becoming a politician today, one must have “thick skin.” Consider the constant abuse thrown at Donald Trump even as President of the United States. A new breed of politician has evolved. The pure idealist is as extinct as the dinosaur whose bones we visit in museums around the world. We know they existed, but they have been replaced in the natural order of evolution by new breeds which now rule the earth.
In some way, we must look at today’s political leaders from a slightly different perspective. They commit their entire lives to serving the public. They expect the “perks” of their success along the way. Our job is to define when a benefit becomes out of proportion to their contribution. When do the advantages of power outweigh the value the individual brings to the office? Is a gift with no specific linkage, really a bribe? I submit that it is not a simple issue. When we see excess to the tune of vast new wealth and the selling the nation’s best interests in exchange, we are truly in a danger zone. If we look at all of the previous world leaders, we will find a club of some of the wealthiest individuals on the planet. When this wealth comes while they actually hold power, it becomes very problematic.
As we no longer can trust the media to be unbiased or to fact-check their stories before they publish them, we really must not jump to judgement. It does not matter who the accused is. Political enemies are always prepared to damage their adversaries for their own gain. Proof be damned. One court case after another has determined that human frailty has sometimes occurred, but rarely to the extent accused. I leave it in the hands of the courts to determine whether the issues at hand are severe. In the meantime each of us has our own “judges chamber” within our minds. We judge each accusation as it is made not knowing if it even occurred. In the meanwhile we expect quality leaders to rise to serve us and wonder why they are reticent to expose themselves to the new culture of “accuse first…prove later.” I always loved the saying “those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” Perhaps today the stone-slingers have homes constructed of lucite. They no longer fear being held accountable for promoting political character assassination.
It can come as no surprise, to discover that cynicism rules the day.