Accountability of Leadership

When the Israeli police recommended an indictment of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for corruption, the prime minister immediately responded to the public that “there will be nothing because there is nothing.”

While a politician brushing off corruption charges may not be so unordinary, many journalists pointed to Netanyahu’s comments at a Likud convention in December. He said then that “there will be recommendations, so what? Here’s a fact you probably don’t know: over 60 percent of police recommendations are thrown out and never result in indictments.”

A comment like this goes further than ignoring the noise of inquiries and brewing scandal. Here, the prime minister challenged the integrity and the legitimacy of the police establishment and its investigative process. Before Donald Trump became president of the United States, it was unusual for a chief executive to challenge the integrity of an arm of the government under that executive’s own authority. President Trump has picked out the FBI for special criticism, and the Justice Department leadership for sanctioning it, because he sees the Russia investigation as a cancer that breeds unwelcome scandal amid the business of government. Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to be following the same type of response to investigations: to impugn the investigators. Or in sports terms: the best defense is a good offense.

Trump’s and Netanyahu’s aggressiveness against their own governments’ investigative services is ironic, because both came to power in part thanks to the corruption scandals faced by rival politicians. Donald Trump ran a campaign against his Democratic opponent highlighted by his constant focus on her alleged corruption, calling her “Crooked Hillary” and joining in rally chants of “Lock her up!” At the time he praised the actions of the then-director of the FBI for continuing to pursue the investigation into Secretary Clinton’s use of a private email server — he later fired that director, James Comey. Netanyahu, the Likud leader and a former prime minister who opposed the moderate course of his party leadership in joining with Labor leaders to form the Kadima party, prevailed over his Kadima opponent, Tzipi Livni, in 2009, after the sitting Kadima prime minister and former Likud politician Ehud Olmert resigned due to a corruption investigation. (He later served 16 1/2 months in prison.)

Neither Donald Trump nor Binyamin Netanyahu seemed to have any problem with corruption investigations against their rivals. It is only when the investigations are targeted at them or their legitimacy while they occupy the seat of power that they see a problem. In the past week President Trump criticized the FBI for failing to prevent the tragic high school shooting in Florida because it was too focused on investigating Russian involvement in the election of 2016. And he responded to the indictment of 13 Russians by saying that the Russian government got what it wanted in sparking an investigation that has distracted the American media and Congress from the important work his administration is doing. And Prime Minister Netanyahu argued in an address to the nation that the Israeli police recommendations to seek an indictment against him “cast a dark shadow” and “have no place in a democratic state.”

Both leaders have claimed that law enforcement’s independent self-investigative power to investigate the alleged misdeeds of those in power abuses the democratic system’s ability to retain the confidence of the electorate it represents. The argument is that an elected government requires the people’s faith in order to function, and that investigations into the legitimacy of the government only erode that necessary public trust. But an alternative perspective would argue that it is the very vulnerability of governing officials to investigation that ensures their accountability to the public, thereby securing the foundations of the democratic system. Knowing that the person occupying the seat of power is just as much a citizen under the law as everyone else is what democracy is about.

The people are sovereign, and the government serves at its pleasure.

The idea of the ruler being under the law rather than above it, while elemental to democracy, was a revolutionary idea of the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy, the king is required to keep a copy of the Torah with him and to read it at all times, as his reign is only as secure as his fidelity to God’s commands. This religious edict for accountable leadership is remembered every time a new president is sworn in upon a Bible when taking the oath of office, an oath that affirms fidelity to the Constitution.

In the second book of Samuel, when the prophet Nathan accuses King David of murder, theft, adultery, and coveting, proclaiming: “You are that man!” the king responds humbly with the words: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David was no more secure in his legitimacy than the leaders of our time. He worked his way up from shepherd to king and afterward faced many rivals (including his own son). But he submitted to Nathan’s rebuke, affirming the principles of royal accountability and the function of the prophet as “independent counsel.”

King David had his faults, and the Bible spares no detail in its indictment. Yet David remains the model of Jewish leadership, not because of his faults but because of his ability to humble himself before rebuke when he could have easily dispensed with Nathan. The lessons of Deuteronomy and 2 Samuel on the accountability of leadership are more poignant today than ever. Rather than impugning the integrity of investigations, good government needs to affirm those engaged in the difficult work of internal investigation as guarantors of legitimate leadership, as trustees of the public trust, and as servants of truth.

About the Author
Dr. David J. Fine is the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood and past president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. He holds a doctorate in modern European history and is an adjunct professor of Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel colleges at the University of Potsdam in Germany.