The Politics of Corruption in Israel

EIGHTY YEARS AGO, on August 6, 1940, 25,000 Jews stood in silence on the streets of New York to bear witness to the funeral cortège of Vladimir Jabotinsky as it passed by.

The death of the Revisionist Zionist leader   at the age of 59 shocked the Jewish world and he was mourned by friend and foe alike. They remembered that Jabotinsky, who died of heart failure, lived out of a suitcase, travelling from one country to the next  giving inspiring and incendiary speeches to young Jews who had lived under the darkening storm clouds in the Europe of the 1930s.

He taught them to see themselves as the spiritual heirs of King David who would break with history, demolish the ghetto walls, and build the Jewish state. At a memorial meeting in London at the height of the Battle of Britain, the then chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, Joseph Hertz, compared Jabotinsky  to  third century sage Shimon ben Gamliel, who had argued that the three foundations of society were truth, justice and peace.

Today, tens of thousands gather in a reborn Hebrew republic to ask what has happened to Jabotinsky’s values in an Israel led by his self-appointed heir, Benjamin Netanyahu. Why have Israelis taken the unprecedented step to demonstrate outside their embassies in London, New York, Melbourne and Berlin? While Diaspora Jews could only voice their criticism through an opinion, Israelis abroad have both an opinion and the vote (if they choose to return). Clearly the odour of corruption and cronyism has become too strong.

This wave of dissent has bridged Left and Right. President Reuven Rivlin, a disciple of Jabotinsky and a believer in a Greater Israel, was elected in 2014 because he was seen as independent, fair-minded and honest. His campaign to become the Likud candidate was strongly opposed by Netanyahu. As president he has tried to steer a moral course and been unafraid to give his views — and this has led to clashes with Netanyahu.

Those who struggled for a Jewish state before 1948 were imbued with a sense of disdain for materialism and were fortified instead by their ideological convictions. The political morality of the times and their role in changing the destiny of the Jews led Ben-Gurion to seek a hut on Kibbutz Sde Boker and Menahem Begin to live in humble conditions in Tel Aviv.

How much you contributed to your community was the yardstick by which you were measured. Were you a builder of the Land? Did you have a distinguished military career? How many books had you written?

The succeeding generation were, by definition, not founders. They had to deal with Israel as an evolving, living organism. They had to deal with the world-wide change from collectivism to individualism in Israel. The growing demise of Labour’s inefficient command economy made globalisation, privatisation and deregulation, advanced by Thatcherism and Reaganomics, attractive to both Likud and Labour in the 1980s.

Netanyahu was a child of this seismic shift from public ownership to private enterprise. As a great admirer of the US Republicans, he pursued his economic agenda assiduously, first as prime minister in the 1990s and then as finance minister under Ariel Sharon. Israel became a wealthier country and was able to withstand the worldwide economic downturn of 2008.

However, there were profound negative consequences as a result of knocking down every kind of boundary, a reliance on well-to-do outsiders and a disdain for any sort of state intervention. Significantly, every elected Israeli prime minister since 1996 has been the subject of a criminal investigation.Anti-Netanyahu protesters clash with police in JerusalemIsraelis protesting in Sydney

While Israel is ranked 23rd in the world in the list of millionaires, a 2016 OECD report described a 20 per cent plus poverty rate in Israel. This has been qualified by suggestions that this may be an inflated figure because of a widespread black market in the country. Even so, all this does not live up to the Zionist ethos of building a society different from the ones the founders and pioneers left behind in the Diaspora.

Political corruption in Israel has taken many forms. Sometimes it is an attempt to circumvent the Party Financing Law of 1973 in order to fund an electoral campaign. On other occasions, it means getting the state to pay for personal expenditure such as holiday travel for the wife and children or repairs to the family home.

Or keeping gifts from visiting foreign dignitaries that are meant to honour the state. Or accepting bribes; the cash-in-envelopes affair earned former prime minister Ehud Olmert another eight months in addition to the six-year sentence for his role in the Holyland bribery case.

There is also the corruption of peddling influence to achieve a political goal. Many who wish to defend Israel from its hostile opponents refer to it as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. Absolutely true, but they also refer to its “democratically elected government”. However, it is not the government that is democratically elected, it’s the parties.

Given Israel’s protracted difficulties in building coalitions of more than 61 seats from parties of profoundly different ideological views, a grey area exists between party victory and government formation. It is within this area that political horse-trading takes place, where disillusion begins and sometimes ends in corruption.

On January 10, 1997, the appointment of Likud stalwart Roni Bar-On as attorney-general was approved by Netanyahu’s cabinet, only to be superseded by his resignation two days later. The suspicion was that Bar-On was appointed so a plea bargain could be offered to Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-orthodox Shas, who had been charged with bribery. If this transpired and Deri was let off the hook, then Shas would supply the necessary votes to support Netanyahu’s plan for a partial redeployment of Israeli military forces from Hebron as part of the Oslo II accords.

Instead, Deri was sentenced, in 2000, to three years for accepting $155,000 when minister of the interior. The police subsequently charged Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust, but these were dismissed by the succeeding attorney-general for lack of evidence.

In the indictments ranged against him today, Netanyahu has found that he cannot rely on foreign benefactors as he has in the past — he is accused in Case 1000 of receiving gifts from Australian businessman James Packer. The Permits Committee at the State Comptroller’s Office has told Netanyahu that he must return all funds from foreign donors, designated to pay for his legal costs.

Witnesses in his trial will be heard three times a week when hearings begin in January. Regardless of the outcome, the independence of the judiciary and the upholding of the rule of law is a true manifestation of Israel’s rooted democracy. The demonstration that no one is above the law reflects the principles of the founders of the state and a value which all hovevei zion (lovers of Zion) will identify with.

Plus61j 18 August 2020

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