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In such a small country, you can find all the important decision-makers sweating in the same gym.
Well, Israelis knew all along. They know how big their economy is and how a relatively small group of men manages to keep hold of the biggest profits. They also know that construction — fueled by rich American and French Jews who buy with their hearts, rather than their heads, for a sentimental foothold in Israel that they occupy for a few weeks a year — has been the easiest source of such profits. And the one most susceptible to corruption.
How pervasive is that corruption? Look at who else is implicated in the probe that snared Messer. The former municipal engineer for Jerusalem, Uri Sheetrit, at first opposed the Holyland project. Then he became a big proponent. What changed his mind? The police think they know. They’ve remanded him for a week.
It all struck me long before these allegations came out against Messer. You might say it’s instinctive to recognize it once you observe how the place works. This is a country where the average wage is $2,000 a month and a BMW costs $300,000 including taxes. The parking lot at the David’s Citadel was always full of BMWs, and I simply assumed such money was unlikely to be entirely licit. There wasn’t even the chance that these were bankers — which would make them unsavory but, grudgingly, legal earners — because Israel’s financial center is in Tel Aviv.
Then one day my Russian personal trainer was stretching my pectorals and whispering about the other people who happened to be in the gym at that moment. Given that it wasn’t very crowded, it was quite a list:
“That guy’s a private detective. He just got out of jail for blackmailing someone. That’s one of the two owners of the club I go to on Fridays. He’s been to jail for tax evasion. That guy owns a restaurant and all his partners went to jail for tax evasion.”
“Who? That guy?”
“No, the one next to him. The one you’re referring to owns a different restaurant. He actually was jailed for tax evasion. That woman was the education minister — clean, as far as I know. That guy’s Uri Messer.”
“The little guy with the gray beard who keeps waving to everyone?”
“Yeah, him. On the treadmill. He’s tight with Olmert.”
My trainer didn’t need to introduce the other man, walking on the treadmill with his half-glasses on the end of his nose and his head bent to a sheaf of papers. It was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.