By Peter Beaumont
14 Feb 2018
A few weeks ago in Tel Aviv a noisy demonstration gathered on Rothschild Boulevard to protest at the slow pace of the police corruption investigation into Benjamin Netanyahu, which yesterday evening concluded with a recommendation that the prime minister be charged with bribery and breach of trust.
On an apartment balcony above the marchers one enterprising resident had dragged out his television, connected to his laptop, to show Netanyahu – in footage from a previous era – insisting that the then prime minister, Ehud Olmert, could not remain in office after he had been accused off impropriety.
It is almost beside the point to accuse Netanyahu of hypocrisy, even after his press conference yesterday when he insisted he should stay in office. In the same way, the details of what Netanyahu is alleged to have done are also almost beside the point.
Whether he is found guilty or not, the strongest smell of corruption emanates not from what Netanyahu may have benefited from – be it attempts to influence the media, or deliveries to his family (which he does not deny) of jewellery, pink champagne and cigars from his rich benefactors. The real stench comes from how he has corrupted Israel’s imperfect democracy with his politics of shamelessness.
What that represents was well defined by Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Netanyahu says his entire public life, from the day he joined the army to his dozen years as prime minister, has been devoted only to the good of the country, to its security and prosperity. But when he moves from the self-congratulations to the details, the opposite becomes clear: Netanyahu believes that political power is meant to serve those who wield it, not the public.”
The real damage that Netanyahu has done has not been through the widespread impression of sleaze his time in office has created, but in the way that he and his cronies have attacked key institutions seen as challenging his power.
NGOs, the media and foreign philanthropists such as George Soros – even European countries, and now Israel’s police – have all been depicted as enemies accused of conspiring to bring about his downfall.
If all this sounds familiar, it is because it is.
Because Netanyahu – like Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump, his fellow great practitioners of the politics of shamelessness in the west – has made an art out of the brazen and disingenuous, never underestimating the willingness of large sections of apathetic and alienated electorates to believe in the myth of back-stabbing institutions.
At the core of this nihilistic and largely empty style of politics is a rejection of the unwritten rules of political propriety.
If the current visibility of a politics of shamelessness has been notable in recent years, it perhaps has a corollary in the decline of the impact of shame itself as an effective political powerful weapon, a weapon that goes back to Plato and Socrates.
The appeal to decency – memorably expressed by the lawyer Joseph Nye Welch, who was credited with turning opinion against Joseph McCarthy during a hearing in 1954 with his exasperated “Have you no decency, sir? Have you left no sense of decency?” – feels almost an impossibility these days.
And while there is nothing new in politicians pursuing self-interest and ego, what has changed, as Jeffrey Frank noted memorably in the New Yorker last year, is that for some that has become the defining feature.
“There’s a long history of politicians putting their own interests first,” wrote Frank, “but that’s usually been accompanied by something for their constituents, as well as a capacity for shame … As for Donald J Trump, the former reality-show host and America’s forty-fifth president – a man demonstrably immune to shame, or empathy – who can keep up?”
Being caught in the most egregious of untruths is no impediment to a continued career in high political office. Perhaps even the opposite. But Netanyahu and Trump have taken shamelessness to its absurd conclusion: that everything can be denied if everything is a plot by the liberal deep state and enemies within.
Above all, this is a wake-up call to all who believe that the strength of democratic institutions are necessarily a sufficient obstacle to the aberrant politicians of our time who trade in fear and plots to protect their own positions.
• Peter Beaumont is a Guardian reporter and former Jerusalem correspondent