Olmert’s No Sucker

Haim Watzman |

When I received my first bimonthly payment booklet from Israel’s income tax authority back in the mid-1980s, each payment demanded was more than what I earned in two months. Puzzled, I went down to the tax office and waited patiently in line for an hour or so before being called over to one of the clerks.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I filled out the form you gave me and specified my average income. So where did these numbers come from?”

The clerk leaned back in his chair. “We simply assume that you are only declaring a third of your income,” he said.

“But I declared all my income,” I insisted. Admittedly, my income as a freelance writer was a pittance, but I’d told the truth.

“Next time,” the clerk said, “don’t be a sucker. Declare only a third.”

So if Ehud Olmert charged multiple government bodies for the same airline tickets, as police investigators think, was he being shifty, or was he just following long-established Israeli custom? If he’d just gotten one refund for each ticket, would his fellow-Israelis have seen him as a sucker?

If the accusations are true, he’s certainly not the only public servant to engage in creative ways of defrauding the taxpayer. Police investigations and court convictions on such charges are now routine, and the excuse most often given by those charged with corruption is that getting perks or taking money on the side is accepted practice in Israel. Not only is everyone else doing it, but a politician who follows the rules to the letter will never get elected. He won’t be able to amass enough money for a campaign and, worse still, colleagues and the members of his party’s central committee will think he’s a sucker. And who votes for a sucker?

Bribery and corruption are crimes committed by individuals, but they are also crimes of society. Where the pocketing of illegal gratuities is entrenched, it becomes nearly impossible for any citizen, much less politician or government official, to keep his hands clean. When my synagogue, Kehilat Yedidya, ran into a legal snag during the construction of our building, our contractor told us the only way to resolve it was to pay a fat fee to a macher, one of the fixers who hang out at Jerusalem’s city hall and untangle bureaucratic snarls by passing money on to city councilmen or to organizations with which they are associated. In the end, we resolved the issue without resorting to graft, but the contractor thought we were crazy.

Because fraud is so entrenched in the Israeli public life, just investigating politicians and bringing them to trial will not halt it. The public has to see that its civil servants and political leaders responsive to their needs without the encouragement of money and donations. The primary system, adopted from the U.S. by Israel’s larger parties, has been a disaster for Israeli democracy—rather than giving people control of the parties, it has made party leaders beholden to rich donors in Israel and abroad. And law enforcement needs to be stepped up in all areas of life—on the roads, against organized crime, in West Bank settlements.

In Israel, lawbreakers still wear a halo that dates back to the Palmach, and even further back to the Diaspora, when Jews had to maneuver around hostile laws and officials. It’s still the case that you lose social standing if you drive at the speed limit and pay all your taxes.

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