Of late, many of us have been warning that corruption poses a greater threat to our future than our external adversaries and that, unless reversed, like a cancer it will ultimately destroy the Zionist dream.
Alas, today the stench of corruption has become all-pervasive. We are drowning in a sea of moral turpitude. Even as we abide by the principal of presumption of innocence until convicted in a court of law, too much is going on for us not to be sickened by what surrounds us. Each time we think we have reached the bottom, another layer of sleaze is exposed. Our rage, contempt and disillusionment grow daily. Morale has reached an all-time low.
The government, civil service, business sector and all levels of society have become degraded by leaders willing to forgo ethical norms and decency because of greed and the selfish pursuit of personal agendas. The collapse of public morality was undoubtedly a major factor contributing to the leadership breakdown during the bungled Lebanon war.
Our president, whose predecessor retired prematurely under a cloud, was accused of sexual misdemeanors and illegally providing pardons. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon underwent police interrogation for a series of alleged transgressions. His son Omri sacrificed himself to protect his father and was sentenced to jail for criminal conduct. Ministers and senior officials of virtually all political parties have been implicated in various misdemeanors.
The nation was shocked when the head and senior echelons of the Taxation Authority were charged for having accepted bribes and indulging in fraudulent activity. The prime minister’s bureau chief has been placed under house arrest and other officials are under investigation.
The latest news is that on his return from a state visit to China the prime minister may himself undergo criminal investigations.
We also face problems with our law enforcement authorities. The moment the police possesses potentially incriminating information, it seems predisposed to leak the details to the media even before the suspect has been indicted. Even news of the criminal investigation of the prime minister was apparently leaked to the media before he had been informed of it. There have been cases where, following police leaks, reputations were permanently tarnished when individuals accused in the media of criminal behavior were not indicted, yet unable to exonerate themselves.
The fault lies with the attorney-general. He should realize that a presumption of innocence until conviction remains the hallowed hallmark of a democracy. He must insist that leaks to the media from the police result in severe disciplinary action.
We must remind ourselves that while crude public corruption seems to have plunged to its nadir, it is certainly not a new phenomenon for this country.
During the period of Mapai hegemony, the socialist ideologues were hardly pristine. Vitamin P (for protekzia) was the order of the day and jobs were dependant on connections with influential party members. Irgun veterans rarely attained senior civil service positions because David Ben-Gurion imposed a cordon sanitaire against them.
Mapai finance minister Pinchas Sapir, a dedicated Zionist, paved the way for subsequent breaches of the law by authorizing improper practices in relation to party fundraising. Moshe Dayan looted archeological sites for personal gain with impunity. His oft-publicized sexual escapades were more admired than criticized.
However there is no denying that the level of corruption in the public domain then was far less acute than today. This is highlighted by the stark contrast between the modest lifestyles of leaders from Ben-Gurion to Begin (and their ministers) and their venal successors. There was a time when Knesset members put the welfare of the nation above their personal interests.
Exposure for unethical behavior represented the ultimate disgrace and the end of a public career. Thus when housing minister Avraham Ofer was charged with illegal activities (benefiting his party), his shame was so great that he took his own life. And when Leah Rabin was exposed for maintaining a minor illegal foreign currency account, her husband felt impelled to resign from the prime ministership – a far cry from the response of politicians today.
Two key events paved the way for the escalating collapse of moral standards in the public domain. Desperate to attain a Knesset majority to endorse the Oslo Accords, Yitzhak Rabin employed political patronage to bribe unprincipled opposition members – including Gonen Segev, who was subsequently convicted of a drug related felony. The Labor party primaries also became corrupt, as exemplified by the annulment of the ballot for the leadership between Avram Burg and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer because more Druse voters supported Burg than were registered in the party.
The corrupt practices in the public domain desensitized the people and provided a green light to other politicians to feather their nests, bringing about a proliferation of other scandals. This trend was accelerated when the Likud Central Committee, which selected candidates for the Knesset, was expanded by Avigdor Lieberman, from a body of 100 to 3,000 members. Subsequently, in the campaign against Netanyahu, Omri Sharon recruited additional elements, including a number allegedly linked to the criminal world.
The brassy, newly-empowered “plebeian” masters of the Likud lacked ideological motivation and finesse. Their prime motivation was to redivide the spoils for themselves. Some candidates were even shamelessly remunerated with hard cash in return for their support.
Yet despite this awful state of affairs, the good news is that in recent times, riding on the crest of popular national and media outrage, the police have become emboldened. In contrast to the past, they are confronting leading politicians and members of the establishment suspected of having breached the law. Indeed the flood of new scandals being exposed is undoubtedly also a byproduct of the more aggressive implementation of law enforcement.
There are now genuine grounds for hoping that we will soon witness an end to the sleaze. Once the present dysfunctional government goes – which is only a matter of time – the next prime minister will be obliged to make the elimination of corruption a central objective. Binyamin Netanyahu, one of the main contenders, has already publicly confronted the Likud Central Committee and demanded reforms.
Our responsibility as concerned citizens is to continue exerting pressure to achieve governance, financial transparency and trust, in order to ensure that Israel remains a viable democratic state.
The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and is a veteran international Jewish leader.