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The story of two Jewish leaders

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Volodymyr Zelensky hit the headlines again on Sunday by dismissing a deputy infrastructure minister suspected of corruption.

“I want to be clear: there will be no going back to what was in the past,” said the Ukrainian president, referring to his country’s well-deserved reputation for corruption. The minister is suspected of being part of a group that received bribes in exchange for contracts to purchase equipment and machinery. Zelensky followed the next day by banning government officials from traveling abroad for non-governmental purposes, presumably to prevent them from hiding any ill-gotten gains abroad, but also to reassure international donors that they have an honest and reliable partner.

Also on Sunday, another world leader sacked another corrupt official – but the story here is completely different.

Benjamin Netanyahu has been ordered by the Israeli Supreme Court to remove a convicted fraudster, Aryeh Deri, from serving in Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet as health minister and interior minister. The Prime Minister complied “with heavy heart, great sadness and very difficult feeling”, as he said in a letter to Deri which he read aloud during a cabinet meeting. Netanyahu will continue to push for ways to include Deri in the government. He could potentially entrust him with the post of “alternate” Prime Minister.

What a contrast. In the midst of a desperate war for national survival, Zelensky leads a campaign to evict crooks from the government. And in a desperate bid to stay in power, Netanyahu is waging a campaign to keep the crooks out.

For years I had mixed feelings about Netanyahu. He’s not a nice guy. His father said of him that “he does not know how to develop manners that captivate people with praise or grace”. Many of his political opponents were once his ideological kindred spirits, but were put off by his lack of scruples. “According to my code, it is a sin for which there is no forgiveness, even on Yom Kippur,” Avigdor Lieberman, a former defense minister, said of his former boss after he alleged that Netanyahu had authorized private inquiries into his family.

Netanyahu’s advantage was that he was good at his job. Israel prospered economically under his tenure. He forged flourishing ties with former adversaries in Africa and the Arab world. He has pulled off stunning intelligence coups and drastically diminished Iran’s power in Syria without starting an all-out war. And despite Netanyahu’s reputation as a right-wing flamethrower, he generally governed closer to the center than the periphery.

For these reasons, I once called Netanyahu the Richard Nixon of Israel. But it turned out to be deeply mean – to Nixon. At least there were limits to what the 37th president was willing to do to the constitutional system of government to hold on to power.

Nothing similar can be said of Netanyahu, who is now using his four-seat parliamentary majority (achieved with less than 50% of the vote) to push through a radical overhaul of the judicial system that would allow the Knesset to overturn the verdicts of the Supreme Court with just a one-vote parliamentary majority. American conservatives who are reflexively inclined to support Netanyahu might wonder what they would think of a system in which Chuck Schumer could use his one-seat majority in the Senate to overturn Supreme Court rulings, such as the Dobbs decision on the ‘abortion.

The point is all the more important for Israel, which lacks a formal written constitution and the usual checks and balances that help guarantee minority rights in the face of majority rule. As one Israeli leader put it in 2012, “The difference between countries where rights are only on paper and those where there are real rights – that difference is a strong, independent court,” adding: “In places without a strong and independent judiciary, rights cannot be protected.

The name of this Israeli leader: Benjamin Netanyahu.

What changed? Netanyahu got himself into legal trouble, giving him a personal interest in bringing the justice system to heel. His coalition partners are desperate to secure permanent exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, something the judiciary has rightly opposed on equality grounds.

But Netanyahu has also followed the current of illiberal democracy whose other champions are the Hungarian Viktor Orban and the Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro. Hyper-personalized populist rule achieved by removing institutional checks and balances is how democracies turn into mobocracies. That’s why America’s founding fathers built our system the way they did.

After Israel’s last election, I wrote that it was wrong to say that Israel was facing impending fascism. I still think that’s true: Israeli civil society remains strongly motivated, its military leaders remain committed to democratic standards, and even Netanyahu had to bow down in court by firing Deri. Other democracies have survived far worse leaders, including, most recently, our own.

But if Israel is to persevere, it must also maintain the moral respect of its honest friends. Too bad that today the greatest leader of the Jewish people resides in Kyiv rather than Jerusalem.

nytimes Gt

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