Corruption is undermining Israel’s democracy

By Uri Dromi, July 18, 2008

My fellow citizens are losing faith in their politicians — and abandoning the ballot box

This week, we were constantly promised by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, his lawyers, PR people and spin doctors, would be the week when all the corruption accusations levelled against him would be torn to pieces. We are not talking here about Olmert allegedly trying to sell a bank to a friend, or buying a house in Jerusalem at a suspiciously low price from another friend, or getting kickbacks as Minister of Industry.

No, all this is ancient history. This week we are watching a new episode in the series, where a dubious American Jew, Morris Talansky, says in court that he gave Olmert envelopes filled with cash. The last high official I remember getting envelopes with money was Spiro Agnew, the American vice-president, who resigned with the immortal phrase: “The bastards changed the rules and didn’t tell me.” Olmert, on the other hand, is not resigning. Through his lawyers, he’s fighting to prove that Talansky is lying.

But who can focus on this, when last week a new scandal exploded in our face? Police now say that Olmert charged NGOs for flights that had already been paid for by the government. Allegedly, with the extra money pocketed this way at the travel agency, Olmert’s family flew happily around the world.

At a symposium on corruption held this week at Mishkenot Sha’ananim Conference Centre in Jerusalem, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz was asked why he wouldn’t declare Olmert “incapable” of carrying out his job under such a cloud. Mazuz answered that, as long as no legal charges were made, it wasn’t right for a civil servant to depose an elected prime minister. “It’s for the public to decide,” he said.

But will the Israelis rise to this challenge? Another participant, Professor Zeev Sternhell, a world expert on fascism, warned us of the growing cynicism towards politics in Israel.  He told us that once he had been stranded by a strike at the airport of Rome.  Desperate to get home, he begged the man in charge to help him. “I’m a guest of the Italian Parliament,” he explained. The man frowned.

“I was about to help you,” he said, “and now you screwed it.”

Then he calmed down and explained. “The Italian Parliament is made up of four parts. One is run by the Mafia. The second is paid by the Church. The third — by the banks and the big corporations.”

“And what about the fourth?” asked Sternhell.

“They are freelance!”

The audience in Mishkenot Sha’ananim roared with laughter, except that this is far from being funny. If citizens lose trust in the institutions of democracy, they’ll stop voting and then democracy is doomed.

Indeed, as shown in surveys conducted by Prof Asher Arian and his team at the Israel Democracy Institute, fewer and fewer Israelis are going to the ballots on election day. Twenty years ago we had a remarkably high voting rate of 83 per cent. At the last elections, it shrank to 63 per cent. Prof Arian predicts that if elections were held today, the ratio would be close to 50 per cent.

However, Prof Mordechai Kremnitzer, former dean of law at the Hebrew University, brought to the symposium some hope, when he remarked that the discourse about corruption, now running high in Israel, is a sign of recovery. He assessed that with all the security threats Israel is facing, the focus in the next elections will be “clean politics”, and that the politicians will have to adhere.

The bad news is that we have a long way to go. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, in 2007 Israel ranked number 30 in the world (Denmark, Finland and New Zealand share the top, UK is number 12). That we were number 34 the year before is no comfort: in 2001 we were 16.

The good news, however, is that we are pulling ourselves together. Watch for the Corruption Index three years from now. It’s a promise.  

Uri Dromi is director general of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference centre in Jerusalem. He is the former chief spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments
    Last updated: 11:15am, July 17 2008