JERUSALEM — In its international survey of corruption, Transparency International (TI) ranks Israel a respectable number 33 out of 180 countries.
Pity the poor people of Somalia (rank: 180), because the graft stinks bad enough here, 147 places higher on the list.
Israel occupies its position on the TI scale between those other paragons of good government, Dominica and the United Arab Emirates, despite having its last prime minister under investigation for several corruption offenses, its former finance minister on his way to jail for dipping into union funds and its current foreign minister fighting an investigation into his business dealings.
The root of the corruption is cronyism in the political system. This week, the attorney general dropped an investigation of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who had allegedly made 260 political appointments against civil service rules. That was seen as a lifeline for one of his former ministers, Tzahi Hanegbi, who’s on trial for a mere 80 shady appointments.
But corruption isn't the biggest problem for Israel (which is why 33rd place in the TI survey is deceptively high). Rather it’s the refusal of Israeli politicians to acknowledge their wrongdoing that sets a tone for the entire society. Thanks to the men in its Knesset, Israelis are a nation of blame throwers.
Take former Health Minister Shlomo Benizri, who’ll be jailed for four years for bribe-taking, fraud, breach of trust and conspiracy as soon as the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur holidays are over. (He plans to be with his family for those.) Benizri is a powerful force in the Shas Party, which represents religious Jews with origins in Arab countries who’re known as Sephardi. Last week he denounced his sentence as racist.
His party chief Eli Yishai, who is also interior minister, this week called for his pal to be pardoned by President Shimon Peres, before he even begins his sentence. Yishai went on a national radio talkshow to say that “there’s no one who doesn’t tell me on the street that [Benizri’s conviction] is because he’s Sephardi and religious.”
Shas has long played the ethnic card. Yishai is facing an imminent challenge to his leadership from Aryeh Deri, a former minister who was jailed for bribe-taking in 1999. Deri will shortly have completed the cooling-off period for politicians convicted of crimes “of moral turpitude,” after which they may once again run for positions of power.
Back then Shas ran an entire election campaign based around the slogan “He’s innocent,” with angelic photos of Deri and accusations that the Israeli establishment set out to crush a bright kid from the Moroccan immigrant underclass. Just lately Deri has been quoted as telling people close to him: “When I look in the mirror, I don’t see shame. I see an innocent man.”
Being a part of the establishment doesn’t necessarily cover a politician in anti-corruption Teflon. Ask Ehud Olmert, who left office as prime minister in March. It’d be an understatement to say that Olmert quit under a cloud. It was more of a storm of investigations.
Attorney General Menachem Mazuz told Olmert’s lawyers this week that he’d soon decide whether to charge the former prime minister in three corruption cases. Olmert’s accused of taking envelopes stuffed with cash from an American businessman. He’s also suspected of double-billing charities and the government for the same flights, using falsified receipts for travel expenses. Then there’s another case in which it’s alleged Olmert granted favors to his old law partner, saving one of his clients $11 million in taxes.
That’s only the short-list. The attorney general this week closed a bribery case against Olmert for lack of evidence. He’d previously dropped another case in which Olmert was suspected of helping an Australian friend buy a big Israeli bank, and another corruption investigation involving Olmert’s discounted purchase of a home on one of Jerusalem’s most exclusive streets.
So Olmert might get off scot free. Unlike his finance minister, Avraham Hirshson, who was sentenced in June to five years and five months in prison for embezzling $1 million from a trade union.
Olmert’s fighting all these charges. He, too, sees an innocent man in the mirror.
Across the Israeli wall in Bethlehem, there was what looked like better news last week. Corrupt old hacks from the Fatah Party were swept away in the first Fatah congress for 20 years. Young activists — mainly middle-aged, actually, though the previous chiefs were truly decrepit —replaced all but four of the 18-person Central Committee, disposing of a number of aged cronies of Yasser Arafat.
They replaced them with …. relatively youthful cronies of Yasser Arafat. The new faces include Jibril Rajoub, 56-year-old former head of Arafat’s West Bank secret police. During his tenure at the helm of Preventive Security, I tracked a scam Rajoub’s men were running in which wealthy businessmen would be arrested and big ransoms extorted from their family. He also had an official monopoly on the import of gasoline to the West Bank.
Fatah also elected Marwan Barghouti to the Central Committee. He’s serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for his part in the killing of four Israelis and a foreigner during the intifada.
And just like all those corrupt Israeli pols, Barghouti’s not saying sorry either.