In June 2007, Major General (Res.) Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael joined the Knesset as one of Kadima’s Knesset members. In his first day on the job he received the code needed to access his computer. He punched in the code, and was excited to discover that he already got his first e-mail. What could be more enjoyable and promising than a first inquiry with an MK who was just sworn in?
Ben-Israel started reading the e-mail. It was addressed to the “new and corrupt Knesset member.” The female writer demanded that corrupt politicians stop eating pastries during Knesset committee meetings and instead give the money to Holocaust survivors. The e-mail was sent by a 17-year-old girl from Jerusalem.
Ben-Yisrael told me the story earlier this week to illustrate what he characterizes as a dangerous trend in Israeli society; the tendency to disqualify any politician and view the mere engagement with politics as a corrupt thing. He compared the disgust with politics in Israel today to the atmosphere in the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s that paved the way to the Nazi election victory.
Even without resorting to charged examples from history, Ben-Yisrael’s argument holds some truth. The struggle against corruption is essential and attests to a healthy society that seeks to survive. However, the moment this turns into a demagogical tool at the service of personal and political interests or into a voodoo ceremony, with those who refuse to take part in it becoming suspected of corruption themselves, and the moment common perception rules that everyone is corrupt unless proven otherwise, we have a problem.
It is no coincidence that I wrote this piece the day the police recommended the filing of an indictment against the prime minister. The charges against Olmert are not light ones. There is enough there to take away the aura, dignity, and authority needed for a prime minister to function.
However, in the interest of honesty, we should note what the charges lack. In the affairs involving Olmert’s Jerusalem home and Bank Leumi, considered the more serious investigations against the PM, the probes have yet to prompt a recommendation for an indictment, and it is doubtful whether they ever will prompt such recommendation.
Is Israel more corrupt than other countries?
The charges leveled by self-appointed tribunals such as former Accountant General Yaron Zelicha and the herd of journalists who followed him undermined, needlessly and without any benefit, the Israeli public’s faith in proper procedures, the political establishment, and the firmness of democracy. This is what happens when we allow a spoiled child like Zelicha to run wild, instead of offering him mental help.
Is Israel more corrupt today than it was in the past? Is it more corrupt than other countries? Is Israel’s terribly low ranking in various international corruption indexes justified? I’ve been presenting these questions for a while now to any expert who is supposed to be familiar with this area. The answer is that nobody really knows, because it’s very difficult to come up with reliable indexes.
One thing that is indeed clear today is that transparency is much greater than it was in the past. As to the various indexes, they are based on the number of investigations (there are no corruption probes in Kuwait, which makes Kuwait uncorrupt) or alternately, on public opinion polls. As Israelis constantly hear that everything around here is corrupt, they tell the pollsters that everything around here is corrupt.
In the heat of the battle, those who joined the bandwagon of the struggle against corruption slandered many good people: Government officials who performed their job loyally; politicians who refused to convict someone without a trial; journalists who refused to join the herd. All of the above can somehow be accepted. However, regrettably, in the process they also slandered the entire country.