Quote of the Week

"You can destroy your today by worrying about tomorrow."
-Janis Joplin

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Corruption in Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu

It's been quite a while since I have last posted. I know, I'm pathetic. What's more? This post is not even written for this blog - it's written for my class. I'm just making use of it to try to mask how pathetic I am. But hey, Mid-December is my winter break. I do sincerely plan on writing one very good story here and posting it then. Until then, enjoy reading this paper I wrote on the state of corruption in Israel for my Politics class.
The eyes of the world have yet again shifted to the Middle East. This time it is for corruption scandals. Israeli Prime Minister (PM), Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is under police investigation and public scrutiny for the third time during his reign as Israel’s most important political figure. Bribery, breach of trust, and fraud are all crimes for which he is currently under investigation for, and which plague his reputation this time. Niccolo Machiavelli is probably celebrating the decent use of his old guide to ruling The Prince, while Plato is likely turning in his grave at the clear injustice posed by Netanyahu, as per The Republic. This essay will aim to cover Netanyahu’s scandal through the lenses of two starkly different political theorists, by explaining their theories, and demonstrating how Netanyahu has not precisely fulfilled the criteria of being a good leader by either, but has exposed the fallacies and truths in both of their cases.
The PM has been questioned by police more than five times in the past month, though he has publicly denounced all charges as “fake news” (The Jerusalem Post, 2017). Having survived the previous scandals, Netanyahu seems quite certain that he can, survive the current issues as well. However, this seems less likely because of events that have taken place during this investigation, which undermine his innocence, that did not occur during previous ones.
Most notable is the recent departure of his Chief of Staff, Ari Harrow. Following two years of investigation, which culminated with police forces suggesting Harrow be indicted for bribery, money laundering, fraud and breach of trust, Harrow settled on a deal with State prosecutors. In exchange for testifying against Netanyahu in two corruption-related cases, prosecutors would give Harrow the lighter sentence (Reuters, 2017).
When news of this plea deal surfaced, Netanyahu’s innocence and prospects both became understandably bleaker in the eyes of the public. His Chief of Staff was all but openly admitting to the charges, and he was moreover admitting to knowing of Netanyahu’s wrongdoings. Nonetheless, Netanyahu, who stands to become Israel’s longest-serving PM if he can last the whole of his current term in office, has fervently deemed the charges to be part of a political “witch-hunt” (The Jerusalem Post, 2017). Netanyahu even went so far as to say, in Donald Trump-esque fashion, “We know that the left and the media — and we know that it’s the same thing — is on an unprecedented hunt against me and my family to bring down the government...” (The Jerusalem Post, 2017)
Netanyahu’s major accusations lie in Case 1000 and Case 2000. Case 1000 deals with Netanyahu accepting gifts from various businessmen. As per Israeli law, the PM can accept gifts from friends so long as he not then use political channels to repay the gifts, as this would constitute bribery and breach of trust. It is claimed that Netanyahu met with billionaire film producer Arnon Milchan, who gave Netanyahu and his wife, Sara (also implicated in the charges), enormous quantities of wine and cigars, in exchange for Netanyahu’s help and lobbying in getting a United States visa (Vox, 2017).
Case 2000 regards the possible collusion between the PM and the publisher of a major Israeli newspaper. According to reports, Netanyahu met with Arnon Mozes. Mozes pledged that he would ensure his paper would publish pro-Netanyahu content and help keep the PM in power, if Netanyahu took measures, such as introducing legislation, to ensure that Mozes’s main newspaper competition would be kept at bay (Vox, 2017).
With all these allegations swirling, and public approval ratings dropping, it seems unlikely that Netanyahu will manage to survive police prodding for a third time (The New Republic, 2017). At least he will not be alone in being an Israeli PM with a less than spotless record. He will join Ehud Olmert, his former political rival and past Prime Minister, in serving jail time for corruption related charges. After this, the people of Israel can only hope that they will have better luck next election.
When examining Netanyahu’s case from the lenses of two of the most famous political theorists to have ever been, Niccolo Machiavelli and Plato, two very different views are provided for why Netanyahu has behaved as he has, how he has previously gotten away with it, what can be done to remedy the damage that has built up, and what the future holds for Israeli politics.
Machiavelli and Plato write in very different styles, but their differences do not end there. The two writers also have starkly different opinions on what a ruler’s function is, how a ruler should approach his job and society, and even what a ruler should be.
According to Plato in his political book The Republic, the ideal city effectively consists of three types of people – those with bronze in their souls, those with silver, and those with gold. Though Plato is aware that this concept is a lie, he justifies it being told for the promotion of the greater good. The bronze people are the commoners, the silver are the auxiliaries of the Guardian class, and the gold are those who are most fit to rule. In this category of gold souls is The Philosopher King (PK).
The PK is a Guardian of the city who exceeds all expectations and can thus be promoted to Head of State. According to Plato, the PK must be incredibly smart, and use logic and philosophy as his basis to ruling. He also must be satisfied with very little material wealth because material wealth corrupts. Moreover, the philosopher king must be just and love wisdom. What separates the PK from others is that he has true knowledge by being the only person in the ideal city with access to the ideal forms, as opposed to simply being well-educated by schools and so forth. Philosophers, though occasionally looked down on in Athenian society, are defended by Plato and declared to be the most fit to rule, especially because they have no intention to rule.
For Plato, the PK needs to be the person who has access to the ideal forms because they will help him make positive decisions for the future of the city, they need to not have will to rule because only people who are not power-hungry can be trusted with power, and they need to have minimal material wealth because that will prevent them from becoming corrupted. Morally, the PK values the acquisition of knowledge above all else, and thus intellectually, he can achieve understanding of the ideal forms, particularly those of virtue, beauty and good. This, of course, goes along with that person being very smart, physically fit, and otherwise virtuous.
Niccolò Machiavelli has a more brutal and pragmatic approach than his counterpart Plato. Before that approach is discussed, it is necessary to note that Machiavelli wrote his famous political guide The Prince as a work intended for monarchs, as opposed to democratically-elected officials in republic nation-states. However, the content of The Prince offers enough political insight and opinion that it can easily be applied to democratically-elected officials and their own methods of ruling, too. Obviously, since Israel is a republic with regular elections, Machiavelli’s work will be used to describe Netanyahu’s time and dealings as PM.
Machiavelli uses very clear and systematic writing in The Prince. This comes with certain shortfalls. The most pertinent of these is that if any part of his chain of reasoning is flawed, the entire argument is invalid. Despite this, Machiavelli makes many arguments that are solid and even relevant in modern-politics, including those of Israel.
Machiavelli’s core difference from Plato is his opinion on society in general. He states that men are intrinsically “ungrateful, fickle, dissembling, anxious to flee danger, and covetous of gain.” He also proclaims that most subjects are “used to obeying” and they have trouble living when an authoritative figure is not telling them what to do. Men are inclined to follow tradition and feel comfortable when they are partaking in the “old ways of life”. These statements make it clear that Machiavelli considers people to be proverbial “sheep” and blindly follow their leaders. This is in stark contrast to Plato who believes that men like to be involved in daily politics and political biddings. For Machiavelli, even the almighty Prince himself is a follower. The Prince imitates the examples of previous successful leaders in attempts to be successful himself.
Plato is not the only one who would disagree with Machiavelli’s description of the populace. Aristotle, a prominent political theorist in his own right, declared man to be a “political animal”. He concluded humans are quite interested in politics and the welfare of their whole society. Being a political naturalist, Aristotle believed that politics is not just something that men invented and implemented, it is something that is intangible, yet intrinsically existent in human society. Men participate in it because it is almost instinctual to them.
Machiavelli would disagree. He thinks of humans as much more stupid. People either hate or love a prince, and that depends on if that prince harms or benefits them and their way of life. So, Machiavelli’s view on how a Prince should behave consists of many recommendations, though none of them really involve progressive, populace-based decision-making.
This autocratic idea can be discredited through historical examples, such as that of Christian VII of Denmark-Norway. Though he was mentally-insane, sweeping progressive reforms were introduced under his reign. Despite these being the actual doings of his wife and his physician, Christian was lauded by his people, who supported him ever-more strongly after the reforms (Struensee, 1772).
According to The Prince, a monarch can exercise cruelty, if that cruelty occurs all at once, because the people will forget about it in a relatively short span of time. Therefore, a prince does not need to be virtuous, he only needs to appear virtuous in the eyes of the public. But what does it mean to be virtuous, according to Machiavelli? It simply means doing things that are lauded by citizens. This is unlike Aristotle and Plato, who see virtuosity as being an abstract notion in relation to some utmost good and do not consider the practical consequences of it. In Machiavelli’s mind, ethics do not seem important, and only feasible results count when it comes to politics.  So in the end, it does not matter how a prince treats his people, or the way he himself is, if he maintains power, and this can be done through keeping the people minimally content.
For Machiavelli, a perfect prince is not someone who governs with aspects of philosophy, art and political theory, he is simply someone who focuses on military strength and public image. He should harm people only if he is certain that there will be no revenge, and should revolts happen, he should crush them and punish the rebels – these things can boost his image. Ideally, however, a prince should foresee issues and attempt to solve them before they get out of hand.
Good princes rely on intelligence and cunning prowess to obtain power (if they do not get it through hereditary means). They must continue the same pattern after they gain power. If contentious issues arise, the prince should “force the issues” through. It can be interpreted that in some cases that means using literal physical force. Some democratically-elected leaders have used force to pass legislation before. Donald Trump is one of these. During the first week of his presidency, Trump passed several Executive Orders. These orders bypass conventional methods of government in the sense that they do not need to be approved by Congress. Rather, these orders are granted to the President of the United States as a form of “discretionary power” (CNN, 2017).
Benjamin Netanyahu does not seem to fit the criteria of any exact theorist, though he certainly leans more towards Machiavelli’s ideology. That being said, the theories of these two political minds can always be skewed for personal benefit. Ayatollah Khomeini, former spiritual and political leader of Iran is thought to have based his rise and rule on Plato’s model of the PK (Biography.com, n.d.). Still, Khomeini did many things during his reign which would make it impossible for Plato to accept him as a PK.
Netanyahu generally rules with disregard for the means, as long as they reach a desired end. This can be seen by the state of the settlements on the West Bank. He also does his best to maintain a positive image, as can be seen by Case 2000, and he supresses political turmoil, as he did in his last two corruption investigations. Nonetheless, he continues to exercise a form of cruelty on his people by breaching their trust and being corrupt. Though Machiavelli would disapprove of this prolonged and constant cruelty of Netanyahu, he would accept it when he would learn about how Netanyahu works hard to maintain a positive political image and a veil of virtuosity, regardless of how dubious his channels for doing so are.
Machiavelli seems to have channelled many of Sun Tzu’s ideas from Art of War when it comes to his own ideas about military strength. (*see reference) However, Netanyahu would appear to have disproven Machiavelli’s ideas through his actions. Machiavelli says, “the presence of sound military forces indicates the presence of sound laws”. Despite having one of the most impressive military forces in the Middle East, Israel’s laws chronically fail the people when it comes to efficiently deposing corrupt leaders.
But Netanyahu does do Machiavelli some justice with the fact that he is Israel’s first Israeli-born PM. Seeing that he has managed to hold onto power for so long despite the scandals could be a result of him being raised in the same culture and speaking the same language as the people he now governs. Machiavelli does not understate the importance of being familiar with the culture and language of your kingdom.
Netanyahu has done good things for his people during his time in office as well. He has introduced economic reforms, which are well-liked by the people, and he has served as Israel’s first “presentable” PM – meaning that he wears a suit and blends in well with the rest of the world’s diplomats (Vox, 2015).
Plato would be horrified by Netanyahu playing in arguably the most pivotal role in the Middle East. Netanyahu has shown no philosophical knowledge of the ideal forms, and he is not just. His greed demonstrates that, though he may be conventionally well-educated, he lacks “true knowledge”. Most importantly, Netanyahu’s scandal demonstrates that material wealth corrupts, as Plato had stated. Karl Marx would agree with Plato here and probably use Netanyahu as an example of a Bourgeoisie – someone who is so enamored by the prospect of wealth, that they stop at nothing, no matter how vile, to acquire it (Marx, 1848).
In Marx’s opinion, as per The Communist Manifesto, the average people of Israel should rise and overthrow this obviously corrupted government, though it is unlikely that that will actually happen. In Plato’s opinion, Netanyahu should also leave and go fulfill a role more suited to his non-gold soul. He should relieve himself of his material wealth and seek to access the highest form of knowledge. In Machiavelli’s opinion, Netanyahu should continue as he is. Though Netanyahu is breaking a few of Machiavelli’s rules, he is doing so with the purpose of achieving the same desired end – the perpetuation of his rule.
As a student in the famed class Poli240 at UBC, and as a budding political figure, I believe that Machiavelli provides the most pragmatic and likely way to govern for Netanyahu, and for many other current politicians. As much as I adore Marx, I am doubtful that his ideal form of government will ever effectively exist. This is because I believe Plato when he says that wealth and material possessions corrupt – people naturally always want more. This is makes it very difficult for true communism to ever come to fruition. Likewise, Plato’s hippy-commune-style fantasy world is hard to implement. Citizens of Western Liberal Democracies have become accustomed to having money to spend on materialistic trinkets, and have an engrained notion that their quality of life and their worth as a person is equal to the sum of the value of their material possessions. This is an extremely difficult thought-cycle to break, and makes it unlikely for Plato’s Kallipolis to ever be.
I would like to see the world move through the necessary motions to achieve a peaceful coexistence, where people are content with more intangible things, like love and humor. Unfortunately, such a transition is very hard to incentivize because of the way that Westerners (and I am including Israelis in that) have viewed, and continue to view, the world.
The major differences between Plato and Machiavelli’s ideologies lie in their opinions on men’s nature, and the purpose of government. The purpose of Machiavelli’s guide to governance is, unlike Plato’s, not to create a perfect society where every citizen is content and presented with equal opportunities, rather Machiavelli is solely concerned with what actions need to happen to perpetuate a monarch’s control over his territory. Netanyahu embodies the theories of Machiavelli far more than he does those of Plato, or any other mentioned philosopher. He simply does what he sees to be the easiest way to achieve his desired ends. He is not just, he is corrupted by material wealth and thirst for power, and that is why he would make Plato upset.
The people of Israel can only hope for a better future, if they manage to depose Netanyahu. Considering their history, the prospects are bleak.
Works Cited

Aristotle. Politics. Harvard University Press, 2005.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - Religious Figure - Biography.com. (n.d.). Retrieved 11 24, 2017, from Biography.com: http://www.biography.com/people/ayatollah-ruhollah-khomeini-13680544
Birnbaum, B. (n.d.). Benjamin Netanyahu Will Not Win Another Election. Retrieved 11 24, 2017, from https://newrepublic.com/article/121320/benjamin-netanyahu-wins-israel-election-5-takeaways
CNN, J. D. (n.d.). Trump's latest executive order: Banning people from 7 ... Retrieved 11 24, 2017, from ''CNN'': http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/27/politics/donald-trump-refugees-executive-order/index.html
Griffith, S. (2005). Sun Tzu: The Illustrated Art of War. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 11 24, 2017
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Cambridge Press, 1975.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Monthly Review Press, 1998.
Plato.  Republic. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Schioldann, J. (2013). ‘StruensĂ©e’s memoir on the situation of the King’ (1772): Christian VII of Denmark. History of Psychiatry, 24(2), 227-247. Retrieved 11 24, 2017, from https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24573261
Wildman, Sarah. “A Corruption Investigation Could Bring down Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” Vox, Vox, 8 Aug. 2017, www.vox.com/world/2017/8/8/16107212/corruption-bribery-netanyahu-chief-of-staff-revelations.