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Once, while waiting to be interviewed on a news program about separate issues, I chatted with the former commander of the anti-corruption unit of the Israel police. “Is Israel more corrupt than other Western-style states,” I asked him, “and, if so, why?” His answer was an unequivocal “yes,” but his explanation less legal than historical. Confined for centuries in ghettos and shtetls, the Jews survived by cheating the gentiles. “There are not many gentiles here,” the officer explained, “so the Jews just cheat one-another.”
Another reason often proffered is the influence of the corruption-prone cultures of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. But that would not account for the graft and embezzlement convictions of a finance minister or the indictment of a sitting prime minister on three counts of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust—all three native-born Ashkenazis. High-level law enforcement figures and judges have also been tried for financial and sexual offenses. Whatever the cause, Israel appears to be rife with corruption.
That appearance is backed by numbers. In comparison with other Western-style democracies, Israel ranks unimpressively on the corruption scale, on a par with Portugal, Poland, and Lithuania. A third of Israelis view the judiciary as corrupt and a staggering 50% distrust the police. Public trust in government, less than 30%, is half of what it was in 2013, while faith in political parties has fallen to an all-time low, a mere 14%.
A new nadir in that confidence was recently reached with the election of the 35th government with its thirty-six ministers and sixteen deputy ministers—the most in Israel’s history. Since ministers and deputies cannot advance laws or vote in committee, these appointments effectively strip the Knesset of much of its legislative powers. The rotation, after eighteen months, of the prime minister and other key cabinet positions, necessitated fundamental changes to Israel’s basic laws while creating two separate governments. The appointment of ministers and high-level diplomats without even a semblance of qualifications further undermines the efficacy of those posts. All this at the cost of hundreds of millions of sheqels at a time of economic catastrophe. The last vestige of what Ben-Gurion called mamlachtiyut—acting in a state-like manner—has vanished.
The erosion of public morality and confidence represents a paramount danger to the state. Of all the existential challenges confronting Israel daily, corruption may be the deadliest, for it weakens our ability to withstand the rest. Restoring that resilience will not be easy, but neither are a great many of the measures recommended here. And as with all those transformations, it begins with recognizing the problem for what it is—a threat to Israel’s future.
The effort begins with legislation to tighten restrictions on politicians who have served time in jail to run for office and for indicted officials to remain in their posts. It continues with a national campaign to educate Israelis on the many forms of corruption and their consequences. And, for office holders, it means clearly demarking moral and legal red lines. I have fulfilled several diplomatic and political roles, but not once was I briefed on the limitations of receiving and giving gifts, for example, or the range of conflicts of interest.
In all these initiatives there is a crucial role for Israel’s president. Though that office, too, has been marred by corruption—one president was forced out of office by allegations of bribe-taking and another imprisoned for rape—it is still respected by the overwhelming majority of Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike. The president could convene gatherings of religious, cultural, and business leaders to discuss ways of fighting corruption and deepening the public’s awareness of its damage.
Here is another scourge—much like the Coronavirus—that potentially can bring us together and for a long-term common good. Israel in 2048 can be a healthier state both physically and politically. Needed now are concrete steps to ensure the probity of our lawmakers and enforcers, and the emergence of leaders more esteemed by citizens they serve.
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