The opening of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's corruption trial on Sunday was a moment of intense national shame and intense national pride.
The shame is obvious: the serving prime minister taking his place on the defendant’s bench, charged with serious criminal offenses. Netanyahu is 70 years old. Even his most bitter rivals don't enjoy seeing him like that. I hope, with all my heart, that he will be proved innocent, but the disgrace can't be undone. I believe that the good of the country demands that his time in office come to an end, but not like this—not through the side door of the Jerusalem District Court’s Room 317, which leads to the custody room. The thought of Israel's longest-serving prime minister spending the latter years of his life in prison is chilling.
The pride is also clear: Only a real democracy, a law-abiding state, can put its leader on trial. Once again, Israel has proved that it's a democracy, with tradition and principles made of steel. Netanyahu did everything he could in the past four years to avoid the moment when he had to appear before the judges. He dragged the country into three elections; he tried to change Israel’s Basic Laws (the closest thing we have to a constitution); and he orchestrated an unprecedented media operation, some of it with hidden foreign funding, to convince the Israeli public that he shouldn’t be forced to stand trial.
The fact that he failed is a badge of honor for the State of Israel.
But a badge of honor isn't an insurance policy against what comes next. Criminal defendants always choose aggression or modesty; either they attack the court, or they ask for compassion. Netanyahu chose the first strategy. In a speech delivered outside the courthouse, he called on his supporters to take to the streets in protest against a judicial system he says is “controlled by the left and the media.” While senior ministers and Knesset members stood like wax dolls behind him, with masks covering their mouths, Netanyahu accused the police and prosecution of setting him up, claimed that the case against him is purely political, and declared that this was a struggle of the old liberal elite against the rule of the right. He’s experienced enough to know such remarks could lead to violence, but he doesn't seem to care anymore.
I know this sounds familiar. The entire Western world is enveloped in a dark cloud of deep and poisonous suspicion toward the judicial and media establishments. Conspiracy theories are powerful tools. Lies are more potent than the truth. Stories are stronger than facts. Leaders like Netanyahu have realized they no longer need to deal with problems. If reality is uncomfortable, they just find someone to blame. If anyone causes problems, they attack them personally, going hard and low. If they can't find something sufficiently terrible to say about them, they encourage one of their conspiracy-theory-pushing websites to spread lies, and then quote those lies extensively.
As the new leader of the opposition in Israel, I face a difficult dilemma. The idea of using the same tools that Netanyahu employs is tempting. I've got Twitter and Facebook, just as he does; I can also go on the air and lie. I have great respect for Hillary Clinton, but no politician in our era wants to repeat her experience in 2016, waking up the day after the battle only to realize they used yesterday’s weapons in tomorrow’s war.
On the other hand, if we meet incitement with incitement, lies with lies, what will the public need us for? If I act like Netanyahu, Israel might as well keep Netanyahu. Our struggle against him is part of a wider struggle for our way of life, for the nature of Israeli democracy and for the values that made us what we are: decency, integrity, truth, and the acceptance of the other.
My solution is to say to the Israelis: We’re better than that. The political opposition in every country, but especially liberal opposition parties, tends to paint the situation darkly, to claim that everything is terrible and ugly and intolerable. That doesn’t drive anyone to the polls, and it comes across as unpatriotic.
I prefer to talk to Israelis in terms of national pride. Israel is greater than all of us. We need to fight for big ideas, not low crimes. Israelis are better than the incitement they hear, better than the attempt to drag them toward violence, better than their current leadership.
Israel deserves better than a prime minister with three indictments who peddles wild conspiracy theories. Israelis face the choice between shame and pride. We're offering them pride.