In the wonderful film “The Princess Bride,” the impish leader of a band of outlaws confronts one misfortune after another, declaring each in turn to be “inconceivable!” Eventually his colleague, far more dashing and more realistic as well, objects on semantical grounds. “You keep using that word,” muses Inigo Montoya, in a terrible Spanish accent. “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
That is where we are today. A lot of things were once inconceivable, like Donald Trump being president of the United States or his daughter being considered to head the World Bank. But it would be inaccurate to describe them that way now.
As the world grows increasingly outrageous, we lose our capacity for rage. As leaders become increasingly shameless, we lose our capacity to shame them. Rage and shame bring diminishing returns; they need scarcity to have value. The digital age has commoditized facts, spread false equivalence, drowned us all in a sea of malarkey. Progressives howling at every triviality have cheapened the very idea of offense. So we lose sight of what is truly shameful, and nothing, or close to nothing, is inconceivable any more.
In Israel, listen carefully and you will hear a shift in the discourse regarding what one can expect once charges are formally brought against Benjamin Netanyahu. It was once considered inconceivable that Netanyahu would hang on after that — that a prime minister could function while on trial in a democratic country not named Italy. Well, dear reader, consider again.
As a reminder, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit last month announced his intention to lodge three counts of bribery and breach of trust against Netanyahu for allegedly accepting a conveyor belt of generous gifts and trying to engineer positive press coverage in a serious of bewildering quid pro quos with people Bernie Sanders might call “millionaires and billionaires.”
Critics charged that the cronyish A-G had trodden lightly, yet the document makes fascinating reading nonetheless. Consider this description of alleged petty larceny in exchange for favors: “Each time (you met the benefactor) you would receive a box or boxes of cigars (and also) a case of six bottles of champagne, and sometimes two such cases … Your wife received jewelry … at her request and with your involvement.”
In 1977, Yitzhak Rabin, then on his first term as prime minister, quietly stepped down after revelations his wife was found to have not closed a dollar account, as regulations required. Let’s just say that Netanyahu did not appear to consider such a move.
During the recent campaign, the opposition demurred from making too big a deal out of this, which must amount to one of the biggest bags of cash ever left on a table during an election. They did try to make hay out of a fourth case involving shady submarine deals approved by Netanyahu over the objections of the military, in which aides are legally ensnared and which reportedly involved a company whose stock Netanyahu profited hugely from, some time in the past. This case rolls on, but was not in the A-G’s report.
At each step of the investigations, Netanyahu claimed that the truth of his innocence would eventually be revealed. He showed no embarrassment when reminded of his own loud claims against predecessor Ehud Olmert, whom he hounded from office a decade ago claiming a leader cannot function even under investigation. Netanyahu soldiered on, claiming deep state and press conspiracies against him, through the investigation, through police recommendations against him, through prosecution consent, and now through the A-G’s declaration. He ran for reelection while dismissing the scandal as a trifle.
His tactic during the campaign was to belittle his predicament because actual prosecution was still pending a hearing, which indeed is scheduled for a few months from now. At that time, he promised with assurance, the cases will collapse. The truth is that Netanyahu has already enjoyed countless hours with detectives and the hearing is largely pro forma. But his base buys the spin, if it even cares at all.
The very existence of such a spin, though, did make liberals optimistically conclude that an indictment truly worried Netanyahu – as if, despite his dispiriting reelection last Tuesday, the saga was destined soon to end.
There were even leaked reports of plans to pass a law that would prevent prosecution of the prime minister, similar to the situation with the president of France (and not unlike what is effectively the case in the United States, by some interpretations). Confronted with these suspicions in a recent interview Netanyahu did not convincingly deny, fueling them further.
Such a law applied retroactively would be very embarrassing, so many expect a tamer machination in which the Knesset would refuse to remove parliamentary immunity, a precedent when criminal charges are at hand. Based on signals coming from his coalition partners, that is not so crazy anymore, and it would leave the Supreme Court having to decide whether to interfere. This is why Netanyahu allies in recent years have been agitating against the court as a liberal bastion of the hated elites.
In the bizarro world that Israel has become, all of the above would somehow pass for “normal” scenarios compared to a far more outrageous and yet increasingly plausible one: the law does not prevent Netanyahu from serving throughout a trial. It even allows him to survive a conviction throughout the appeals process all the way to the Supreme Court, which should see him to the end of his new term.
The law all over the world does not expressly forbid a lot of things which once did not happen anyway because they are inconceivable. Examples might include a US president refusing to release tax records, profiting from office, avoiding intelligence assessments or firing senior law enforcement officials for investigating him. Richard Nixon was hounded out of office for much less.
In some ways, Netanyahu and Donald Trump could hardly be further apart. One is a brilliant orator with expert views on economics and history; I’m not convinced the other could find his country on the map. But there are qualities they share in their brotherhood of global troublemakers, and chief among them is their spellbinding lack of shame (Bret Stephens in the New York Times recently examined Trump’s).
Who but Trump would appear barely fazed by the leaked Access Hollywood tape, by the revelations in the Bob Woodward book, by the excruciating public descriptions by porn star Stormy Daniels of her quality time with him? Who would find exoneration in the Mueller investigation considering that the list of people who either pled guilty or stand accused includes top fixer-lawyer Michael Cohen, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and others?
Well, actually, one person who would is Netanyahu.
His tolerance for indignity should have been clear when about a quarter century ago he went on TV to admit to an extramarital affair and accused party rivals of extortion. Whether or not that was the right thing to do, what is remarkable in retrospect is how assured he was, betraying nothing to reflect the slightest discomfort. Similarly, he now seems completely unfazed by leaked recordings that appear to show his adult son bragging about shady favors after visiting strip clubs and joyriding at public expense.
The question in both cases becomes whether the people, and such leaders’ parties, will tolerate the utter lack of shame.
The party end of it is easy: Trump’s Republicans and Netanyahu’s Likud Party have completely fallen in line.
In the case of Likud, Netanyahu has systematically purged the party of major figures who could challenge him, and at this point his reputation as a political magician is such that none of the pushovers remaining seem remotely capable of rebellion. One senses that if Netanyahu drove them over a cliff they would cling to their seats because they feared him worse than death itself.
In the case of the Republicans, the party leadership was steamrolled by 2016 primary voters who fell under Trump’s toxic spell and have since enabled him both for fear of future primary retribution and in order to gain their dream trifecta of conservative judges, lower taxes for corporations and the rich, and attacks on Obamacare.
The question for the Republicans now is how badly this may hurt them with the people. And that is where Israeli voters last week delivered an answer that should be a warning to Democrats. They evidently did not care.
It used to be that where America went the world soon followed. But Israel, a trailblazer in so many areas, may in this matter too be leading the way.