Perspectives on Israeli Political Corruption



Perspectives on Israeli Political Corruption


Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University




These days, one can’t get through a week of news on (and in) Israel without the word corruption popping up. Indeed, we are about to witness the passing of the nation’s leadership baton from PM Olmert to his elected successor, as a result of public and coalition pressure on him to resign. Under investigation in no less than five or six scandals (depending how you wish to combine or separate some cases), Olmert has set the Israeli record which heretofore was owned by the previous prime minister Ariel Sharon. Thus, the critical question has to be asked: exactly how corrupt is Israeli politics?

           Like the proverbial blind men, each of whom is trying to define an elephant when touching a different part, the reply to our question depends on one’s perspective. Indeed, it is also a function of time frame. Thus, in typical Jewish fashion the bottom line answer is a resounding “it depends”. Here are several ways of looking at the issue.

           1- It used to be worse: Awhile back when doing some research, I went into the library to read a few of the early State Comptroller annual reports. This central functionary (appointed by the Knesset and not the Government) has as its major role ferreting out, and reporting on, bureaucratic inefficiency, malfeasance and outright corruption. It made for sobering, albeit “laughable”, reading. I shall offer but one recurring example (in the 1950s): public clerks who would take home the day’s payments by the public (for licenses, registration fees etc.) and deposit them in their own personal bank account for “safekeeping”! Such endemically corrupt practices, back then widespread throughout the system, simply do not exist today. Instead we get the “major” stories of prime ministers and other political bigwigs caught with their hands in the till or involved in illegal “give and take”. Which brings us to the next perspective on the phenomenon.

           2- Investigative journalism: In the first few decades of the State, there were more than a dozen daily newspapers, and none had the “gall” to look too carefully into leadership practices. It was the era of “national development” and the Israeli media saw their role largely as Zionist cheerleaders. Moving forward 50-60 years and we find today a radically different situation: growing economic competition between the press and commercial television (not to mention within each medium too) has led them to sensationalize each police investigation and elicit leaks from the prosecutor’s office, the police and the defense lawyers in what has become a bona fide three-ring circus. Thus, not only are the media in Israel today far more willing (and even eager) to “scoop” corruption, but once brought to light the ensuing frenzy tends to reinforce the impression regarding the phenomenon well beyond its natural parameters. (Parenthetically, this occurs in other fields as well; to go by the Israeli media coverage of traffic fatalities one gets the distinct impression that the country’s drivers are the most reckless in the world, when the data show them to be situated somewhere in the middle.)

           3- It’s a young country: As we all know, Israel is 60. So where were other countries on the corruption scale at around their 60th birthday? The U.S. provides a good example: President Grant’s Administration’s numerous scandals (80 years after 1790); Boss Tweed who ran New York City like a personal fiefdom (ditto); and many others. The point is not that if it happened in America it’s not so bad, but rather that corruption seems to be a “natural” part of democratic nation-building. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither is clean democracy built in half a century.

           4- The system fights back: A major part of this struggle to build a clean system is the establishment of strong corruption-fighting institutions within the overall polity. I mentioned earlier the State Comptroller. With all due respect, the first ones were extremely wishy-washy; the latest are no-holds-barred corruption fighters. As with the media, here too the positive leads to a negative impression: the more they are successful, i.e. the better they are in uncovering illegitimate behavior, the greater the public perception that the situation is getting worse when what’s happening is that the institutions designed to protect the public’s interest are actually getting more effective!

           None of this is to say that Israel is about to join Switzerland or Norway on the Clean Government scale. Israel, as a member of the Middle East (with a modicum of baksheesh culture imported from the Arab world) certainly has its work cut out regarding this issue. But the cup is not only half full with corruption; it is also half empty of far worse corruption that existed beforehand but no one knew. If a corrupt prime minister has to step down from office because of public and political pressure, that’s a sign that things are moving in the right direction.


Sept. 15, 2008

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