Why is Israeli public life now so venal?

In June 2018, Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, was charged with fraud and breach of trust in spending $96,000 of state money on orders from restaurants. In a plea bargain, she agreed to pay back $15,000.

September 24, 2020 11:41

Every elected Israeli prime minister since 1996 has been the subject of a criminal investigation. Sometimes charges were dropped through lack of evidence or defendants were acquitted in court.

Yet Ehud Olmert was found guilty as charged and sentenced to prison for the ‘cash in envelopes’ affair while Ariel Sharon’s son, Omri, was indicted for political corruption in November 2005, relating to the funding of his father’s run for the leadership of the Likud in 1999. Today, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have to answer charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a Jerusalem courtroom in January.

In addition, ministers such as Aryeh Deri and Shlomo Benizri, leaders of the Sephardi religious party, Shas, have also served time in prison for misdemeanours.

Religious or secular, why has there been such an eruption of corruption in Israeli political life in recent history?

In 2019, the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International placed Israel at 35 out of 198 countries. The UK, Australia and Canada were listed at 12 while the USA was positioned at 23. The Gini Index which details equality in societies similarly suggests that there is less inequality in the UK, Australia and Canada than in Israel which is on a par with the USA.

In the early years of the state, Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party propagated the doctrine of ‘proteksia’ whereby party membership ensured crucial benefits such as jobs — a system that was deeply resented by many. It contributed to the downfall of Labour in 1977 and the election of Menahem Begin’s Likud.

Even so, an individual’s achievements in life were measured then by such yardsticks as a military career, volunteering for the community, books published and religious learning. The visible signs of wealth — while always welcome — featured low down the ladder. Ben-Gurion retired to a hut in the desert where his library was its centrepiece and Begin lived in humble circumstances in Tel Aviv. What mattered to them was ideology and political principles — and not materialism.

There had always been a clear demarcation between the public and the private. In recent times however there has been a blurring of this border. Red lines have withered.

In June 2018, Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, was charged with fraud and breach of trust in spending $96,000 of state money on orders from restaurants. In a plea bargain, she agreed to pay back $15,000.

In 2006, Benjamin Netanyahu, then out of office, was invited to London to use his public advocacy skills in speaking to the British media after the Second Lebanon war. He and his wife ran up a bill of $32,000 over a long weekend and caused a furore in Israel. An angry Netanyahu stated that he had paid for his private expenses out of his own pocket while acting on behalf of the state. Even so, one Israeli journalist said that this incident exemplified Netanyahu’s unadulterated hedonism.

In July 1985, Israel switched to a neo-liberal economic structure after the slow decay of Labour’s command economy. Collectivism was relegated to the past while individualism was promoted as the hope of the future. Social solidarity became secondary. In this, Israel was little different from many other countries which embraced an unregulated globalism. Netanyahu was a child of this time.

As Finance Minister under Ariel Sharon, Netanyahu espoused privatisation and entrepreneurial endeavour — and indeed can be credited with protecting Israel from the economic downturn in 2008 which afflicted the UK and many other countries.

During his time as UN Ambassador in the 1980s, Netanyahu forged a network of philanthropists who had donated generously to a plethora of Jewish causes. The interaction of Diaspora funding and Israeli politics deepened during this period. Israeli politicians who came from impoverished backgrounds were impressed. Many Diaspora hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) subsequently gave generously to Netanyahu’s election campaigns — 90% of foreign donations have come from the United States.

One of the charges against him in the forthcoming trial is that he accepted gifts from well-to-do friends which could influence decision-making. This accusation, in his eyes, did not seem to contradict his request to a Michigan-based real estate magnate to cover his legal fees in his present predicament. The Oversight Committee of the State Comptroller’s Office ruled against this and repeatedly has asked Netanyahu to declare his assets. In 2014, he was reputedly worth 50 million shekels.

Netanyahu has further attempted to disparage a domestic opposition. Weekly demonstrations have been taking place now for more than three years. The protesters have encompassed both Left and Right. Even so, at a Likud rally in August 2017, Netanyahu commented: ‘They know that they can’t beat us at the ballots, so they are trying to circumvent democracy and topple us in other ways.’ In contrast to other Israeli citizens, only 23% of Likud voters believed that the country’s leadership was corrupt, according to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2018.

Similarly public officials have often been accused of having ulterior political motives in challenging Netanyahu. Investigations in the press were labelled ‘Bolshevik propaganda’. Yet Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, who has made the crucial legal decisions regarding the charges directed at Netanyahu, was a Major-General in the IDF and a scion of a Revisionist Zionist family. Similarly Roni Alsheikh, the head of the Israeli police and a former number two in the Mossad, lives in a settlement on the West Bank.

At one pro-Netanyahu demonstration, the case against the prime minister was depicted as the Dreyfus Affair of our time and the prime minister as the victim of a conspiratorial elite.

Netanyahu has repeated his mantra on many occasions that the Middle East is a dangerous neighbourhood — and no place for moralists. While this is certainly the realpolitik of Israel’s struggle, it has gradually been transferred to colouring an explanation of Netanyahu’s personal conduct in office.

In Israel there has been a subtle transformation of republican belief in the rule of law to an American-style libertarianism. The media, academia and the judiciary who oversee the system of checks and balances in any democracy are now depicted as the enemies of the people.

In part, this situation is due to the lack of political reform in Israel. Politicians are satisfied with the status quo where there is no direct responsibility to the voters and no constituencies. Moreover, no Israeli political leader wishes to surrender his or her patronage.

While Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, the government is formed as a product of political horse-trading. Ensuring the stability of any coalition can lead to the cutting of corners.

The Israel Democracy Institute has proposed establishing a national task force to prevent bribery. It would be comprised of experts from disciplines such as behavioural economics, crime prevention, auditing and control. Its task would be to examine ‘the structural, systemic and procedural aspects of bribery cases and recommend ways to close loopholes and build “fences” to prevent corrupt behaviour’.

In the past, when Israelis were asked by pollsters which issues matter most to them, corruption did not rank very high — unless it touched them personally. The economy is good today and Netanyahu is seen as the guarantor of national security, a fixer who can talk to both Trump and Putin, a world statesman who can establish diplomatic relations from the UAE to Serbia. In the hierarchy of priorities, this is seen as more important than personal conduct and accusations of corruption. Does any of this matter in today’s world of transactional deals?

In these Days of Awe before Yom Kippur, there will be many who will silently reflect on these questions and ask how all this relates to Jewish values that are passed on from generation to generation.


September 24, 2020 11:41

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