In September 1974 President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon, for any crimes he may have committed during the Watergate scandal. The decision was controversial, with some raising the possibility that Nixon had resigned only on the condition that his successor, Ford, would grant him a pardon (the 1970s version of the quid pro quo). Many felt that Ford had short circuited the course of justice.
Ford himself felt that he was doing the right thing for the country, that America was being torn apart by the Watergate scandal, and he was in a position to put an end to the strife. The dilemma before Ford was an interesting one because it may have cost him the election of 1976. His initial popularity for not being Nixon plummeted after the pardon. One could argue that Ford put what he felt was the good of the country above his own political future.
I thought about this political moment from history as I learned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be tried for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases. Netanyahu was defiant in the face of the indictment and refused to resign. Obviously, he believes his decision is in the best interest of Israel, but not all agree.
David Horovitz, the founding editor of The Times of Israel, argues in an op-ed that Netanyahu should resign for the good of the country. Such a resignation would serve another purpose as well. Without Netanyahu as head of the Likud party, there is a stronger chance of a national unity government, which would avoid an insane third national election in less than a year.
About six months ago I wrote that Israel and America are in similar situations, with leaders facing charges of corruption and asked the question, “What is the remedy when the leader of the nation uses his office for personal political gain?” The president or prime minister is the chief law enforcement officer of the country. Whether guilty or innocence, when he disparages the judicial system as engaging in an attempted coup and asks his supporters to choose him over the state, everyone suffers.
Nations are simply not equipped to easily deal with a head of government who thinks the government is out to get him. The ancient rabbis, in Pirkei Avot (1:8), their collection of advice to future rabbinic leaders, they caution the judge not to “play the part of an advocate”, that is, stay in your lane. The leader must be above reproach, not one who takes sides, and certainly not one who puts his hands on the scales for his own gain.
It may not have been the smartest decision, or even the correct one for the country, but I hope that these thoughts are what entered Ford’s head 45 years ago when he pardoned Nixon. In times like these, when the fate of democracy hangs in the balance, we need leaders who choose the good of the nation over their own.