Corruption and sex scandals are not a new phenomenon for this region. The Bible records a colorful variety of examples, including the episode of King David, who sent a soldier to his death so that he could marry his widow Bathsheba. But at least, and unlike former president Moshe Katsav, he subsequently displayed remorse and publicly acknowledged his wrongdoing.
I was personally acquainted with Katsav, and confess that I took considerable pride in presenting him as an example of how a Sephardi Jew from a poor family raised in a development town could rise to the top echelons of society.
I am disgusted when I now realize that it was common knowledge among many of Katsav’s Knesset colleagues, including those who supported his candidacy for the presidency, that he had a reputation for sexually harassing women. Even some of the sanctimonious Shas MKs whose clandestine last-minute change of support enabled him to win the vote were aware of his sleazy lifestyle.
The then-leader of the opposition, Ariel Sharon, bears particular responsibility. It has now been disclosed that he personally badgered his media contacts and succeeded in persuading them to suppress an exposé of Katsav’s disreputable behavior.
Katsav is not the first president forced to retire prematurely. His immediate predecessor, Ezer Weizman, was also obliged to stand down before ending his term when it was discovered that, as a minister, he had accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in unreported gifts from wealthy businessmen.
Prime minister Ehud Olmert was also forced to retire after facing charges of corruption and financial irregularities, which are still pending. Not to mention other prominent politicians, including finance minister Avraham Hirchson, currently in prison, defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, interior minister Aryeh Deri, justice minister Haim Ramon, health minister Shlomo Benizri and, most recently, Tzachi Hanegbi. A number of other leading politicians, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and former Jerusalem mayor Uri Lupoliansky are under investigation.
TO HAVE such a wide range of leading politicians charged with bribery, corruption, sexual offenses and other serious crimes suggests their behavior may simply be a mirror image of a corrupt society.
Some explain this phenomenon as a byproduct of a rapidly developing new country, constantly under siege, which failed to create a political infrastructure with adequate checks and balances.
The reality is that the seeds of the political corruption we encounter today were sown in the early years of the state, during the period of Mapai hegemony, when power was overwhelmingly controlled by one party. In those days, the expression “vitamin P” was an oft-used code word for protekzia which exemplified the endemic corruption.
Those not affiliated with the ruling political party – especially those associated with the Revisionist movement and the former underground movement, Irgun Zvai Leumi – were systematically discriminated against and denied respectable positions in the public sector.
In the 1960s, matters deteriorated to such an extent that there were even public demands from a “new guard” faction within the Mapai establishment, demanding that meritocracy replace rampant nepotism.
Nevertheless, an important element distinguished this period from the current era. The Knesset was then comprised largely of dedicated idealists forged in the fires of the Holocaust and the struggle to create a Jewish state.
Most were not tempted by material possessions and lived modestly, as exemplified by leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.
The ruling Labor Zionist establishment may have exploited the system to promote its political objectives, but in the main its leaders were personally incorruptible.
At least as far as we know, most bribes and graft went into party coffers, not private bank accounts.
Pinhas Sapir, the highly admired finance minister, never personally benefited from his position. But he had no compunctions about extorting donations from foreign investors in attractive state enterprises for the benefit of the party as well as government infrastructure projects.
When in 1977, Avraham Ofer became the first minister to be accused of corruption, he committed suicide, although his alleged transgression for the benefit of the party had yet to be proven and paled compared to the proven behavior of subsequent ministers.
A few months later, Yitzhak Rabin was obliged to resign from his first term as prime minister when it was discovered that his wife Leah had breached the law by maintaining a dollar account in Washington dating back to when he had served as ambassador. Attorney-general Aharon Barak had insisted that a prime minister be held to the same judicial standards as an ordinary citizen.
There is an iron law applicable to political life: Once unorthodox or corrupt practices are introduced to benefit political interests, a slide toward outright personal corruption is almost inevitable.
This was accelerated as the country transformed itself from a socialist to a capitalist economy and a new breed of politicians inclined toward hedonism succeeded the idealistic founders.
But having said that, the true source of the problem rests with a system in which people power is largely sublimated by the dominant political parties.
This enables party interests and cronyism to minimize the checks and balances, as well as frequently providing a protective umbrella to leaders who bend the rules to suit themselves.
THERE IS one factor that now substantially mitigates this. That is the intensified deterrent power of the judicial system in creating genuine fear of retribution.
Nor should one underestimate the role of Micha Lindenstrauss, who despite enormous pressure from the Olmert government to desist, has transformed the State Comptroller’s Office into an effective unit exposing corruption.
While this does not detract from the imperative to devise an electoral system in which the people are enabled to directly punish those who behave dishonestly, we can take pride in the fact that our judiciary has established a reputation for dealing more ruthlessly with crime among the high and mighty than with the ordinary citizen.
That no one, including presidents, prime ministers and ministers, is above the law is certainly something which other countries could well emulate, and which augers well for our future.
The legal system undoubtedly goes a long way toward ensuring that the shame inflicted on us by the appalling behavior of some of our leaders is not replicated. But the problem will only be fully resolved when the electoral system is reformed to weaken the control of political party machines and deny excessive leverage to small one-dimensional parties exploiting the system exclusively for their selfish ends. There is no stronger barrier to corruption than people power.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post