The state comptroller’s annual report again enumerated a litany of corruption based on protektzia and nepotism. Obviously frustrated, retiring comptroller Judge Eliezer Goldberg warned that “government corruption represents a greater danger to Israel than any other threat.”
To most, such revelations are non-events. One Israeli journalist even quoted a cabinet minister saying, “So the state comptroller said it. So what!”
There is a saying that people get the leaders they deserve, but surely this does not apply in Israel’s case. Despite an unabated onslaught of terror and worldwide demonization, Israelis continue to display extraordinary courage and determination while retaining their humanity and values. Surely they deserve better leadership. Yet the reality is that, but for a handful of talented parliamentarians, the quality of representation in the Knesset has sunk to an all-time low.
That is not to say that during the pre-1977 period of Mapai hegemony everything was perfect. The source of many of today’s problems originated then with political appointments in the civil service. Besides, even a devoted Zionist like finance minister Pinchas Sapir would famously turn a blind eye, and even authorize improper practices, in matters related to political fund-raising.
But in those days Knesset members still had a reputation to maintain, and were even regarded with awe. Most possessed high personal integrity and were intellectuals and visionaries overwhelmingly dedicated to the welfare of the nation above their own sectoral or personal interests.
The occasional scandals not relating to campaign funding would spark public outrage. When a minister in the first Rabin administration was exposed for corrupt dealings, he committed suicide. When it was disclosed that Rabin’s wife had maintained an illegal US bank account, the prime minister resigned.
The moral rot accelerated after the Begin administration at the beginning of the Oslo era. Desperate to obtain a Knesset majority, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shamelessly distributed political patronage to unprincipled opposition members – including Gonen Segev, who was then appointed as a minister and was recently convicted of a drug-related felony – to join his government and ensure a Knesset majority for the Oslo Accords. In retrospect, it was a green light for politicians to shamelessly promote their sectoral and personal interests.
A proliferation of scandals ensued, but the only senior politician to be convicted was Shas leader Aryeh Deri. Other more influential fish, including prime ministers and a president, were investigated but never indicted.
THE PUBLIC became increasingly desensitized as one political scandal followed another. What could one expect when, in an election for the leadership of the Labor Party, Knesset speaker Avram Burg was found to have more Druse voting for him than were on the list and the election had to be annulled?
This scandal was exceeded by environment minister Tzahi Hanegbi, who had the gall to publicly boast that his success at the Likud primary polls was due to the fact that he was perceived to be the most effective provider of “jobs for the boys.” (He is currently under investigation for these practices but expectations are that he will not be indicted.)
The comptroller’s latest revelation of corrupt employment procedures by the Agriculture Ministry reflects similar sleaze.
On the political level, setting aside problematic family financial aberrations, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a mockery of the democratic process by the high-handed manner he has handled the disengagement. And if that were not enough, in the midst of drastic budgetary cost-cutting, Sharon announced a costly expansion of his already bloated cabinet to reward Likud colleagues who had helped him block a referendum. That proved too much. In the face of rage and protests, “people power” forced the prime minister to withdraw his proposal “for the time being.”
The bottom line is that despite the trappings of a democratic system, Israelis tend to be treated with contempt by their leaders between one election and the next. Cabinet responsibility has eroded, checks and balances are not maintained and genuine transparency is lacking. The opposition, which seeks to conceal skeletons in its own closets, is part of the system and must share the blame.
It is no surprise that in this banana republic atmosphere, where the civil service is politicized and subject to cronyism, some of the most critically important diplomatic posts are filled by mediocrities rather than by merit.
The electoral system, which is based on proportional representation – party lists rather than constituent candidates – makes it difficult to target or punish those who indulge in corrupt practices or milk the system for their own purposes. The difficulties are compounded by the appalling primaries system which, in lieu of introducing grassroots democracy, creates an environment in which aspiring candidates are encouraged to indulge in ugly personal machinations and appeal to the lowest common denominators at enormous personal cost.
At the last Likud primaries even candidates with criminal connections were nominated. The whole machinery is sleazy and desperately needs an overhaul.
GIVEN THAT the electoral system is unlikely to be changed in the foreseeable future, there is nevertheless scope to act more effectively within the current framework. The state comptroller must be empowered to be more than a compiler of reports or toothless watchdog.
It should be mandatory for the attorney-general and other law enforcement bodies to follow up on recommendations by the comptroller and indict any public officer indulging in misdemeanors such as appointing unqualified people for jobs because of political, personal or family connections. Offenders breaking the law should be dismissed and prosecuted.
Politicians develop an uncanny sense of the limits to which they can go. Once they observe colleagues in trouble over misdemeanors, they become much more circumspect.
That is what “people power” is all about. And if people power has displayed the capacity of overthrowing totalitarian regimes surely, with determination, we can succeed in achieving better and cleaner government. It is a matter of having the willpower to do so.