Vote for the Crook. Or: Privatizing Corruption

Gershom Gorenberg

The difference between corruption in Israel and other places used to be that Israeli politicians stole from the government for the sake of their parties – lama’an ha’inyan, for the cause. It was part of what political scientist Ehud Sprinzak called the “culture of illegality” in his classic 1986 study, “Ish Hayashar Be’einav,” a Hebrew title taken from the last frightening words of the Book of Judges, “every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

Sprinzak listed the reasons that the culture of illegality developed, a couple of which Haim mentioned in his last post: For one, Israeli memory included the Diaspora experience of living in tight-knit communities as a persecuted minority. Within the community, informal rules applied. The general society’s laws were unfair and arbitrary and given little respect. Once Jews came to Palestine, getting around the rules of the British Mandate became a value: illegal settlement, illegal immigration, illegal military activity were all the signs of dedication to the national cause. Sprinzak also mentioned the original, fairly Bolshevik structure of a lot of institutions in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) and Israel: resources were distributed by a bureaucracy formally committed to political values. But there really weren’t enough resources to go around. So the rules were the rules, and the resources got distributed on the basis of who you knew.

To that I would add: Since the party embodied political ideals, acting for the party was acting for Truth and Virtue. A spokesman for the Histadrut labor federation, a man from an old political family, once enlightened me with this comment, “In the early years of the state, Mapai [the ruling party] regarded the government, the Histadrut, and the kibbutz movement as three arms of the party.” So taking money from the state or the union for the party made perfect sense.

In the early 1990s, I interviewed an old Education Ministry official who’d been in charge of elementary school education in religious schools. He was a sweet, principled, sad man and he was sad at the time about some corruption stories. I explained that Israeli pols stole for the cause.

“Ah,” he said, his facing lighting up as he quoted a traditional blessing, “so we can still say, ‘You chose us from among all nations.'”

Well, the concept of the chosen people has taken a beating since. If a quarter of what’s been leaked from the investigations of Ehud Olmert is true, he’s a true believer in the individual and the free market: He steals for himself.

But is a quarter-true too high an estimate? Heavily incriminating leaks from Israeli police investigations, especially against public figures, are more common than indictments or convictions. The police seem to give away a lot, always conditioned on minimal or no attribution. The cop reporters, it seems, are so excited by their leaks that they rush, Judith Miller-style, to publish, without questioning the motives of the leakers. One motive, in my estimation, is to make the person under investigation feel that the cops already have everything, so he might as well sing and try to cop a plea. In the end, any indictment filed is much weaker than the press reports – creating the false impression that bigwigs can get away with everything.

Ergo, Olmert may well be a crook, we just don’t know yet. He may merely be a slimy pol living a millimeter within the law.

And if he is a crook? A friend at Shabbat lunch today, someone with much political knowledge, suggested that he’d rather keep Olmert, corruption and all, than get Bibi or Barak back in the prime minister’s office. His political conclusion matched the slogan from the 1991 election for governor in Louisiana, when two candidates to enter the run-off were neo-Nazi David Duke and the famously corrupt ex-governor, Edwin Edwards. “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important” said bumper stickers.

I don’t swallow this conclusion easily, even though I believe that Bibi has no plan for the country’s future but to hold the territories, build settlements, and hope that his speeches will dissuade the world from noticing the occupation. Barak’s plan for Israel’s future is in our past, buried at Camp David. Olmert is groping his way toward understanding that he’ll have to make a deal with the Palestinians. He is a bargain-basement, cheap imitation of a heroic leader, but he’s what the shop carries right now. So my friend argued. I think my friend dismissed Tzipi Livni a tad too easily, but I’d agree that she’s also more hawkish than Olmert.

I don’t like “Vote for the Crook,” because I want Israel to outgrow the culture of illegalism. It’s hard to argue against the settlement enterprise – as I do – that it is the greatest expression of illegalism, and meanwhile defend an apparently corrupt leader who might eventually stumble toward an agreement to remove settlements.

But then, in 2006 Palestinians had to choose between the far deeper corruption of Fatah and the apparent clean record of Hamas. Given those choices, I have a lot of sympathy for those who saw Fatah as the lesser evil. I wish there’d been a few percent more Palestinians who’d voted for the crooks. It would be a great relief to find out the cops are using the reporters, and Olmert is merely slimy. I’d like to feel that politics in Jerusalem are still a bit more uplifting than politics in Ramallah.

4 thoughts on “Vote for the Crook. Or: Privatizing Corruption”

  1. Thanks for the historical information.
    The important thing to remember is that all criminal investigations of politicians are POLTICALLY motivated. They have nothing to do with “fighing corruption”. All governmental bodies not subject to audit are going to be corrupt. I am sure, for instance, that the police investigations division itself is corrupt. Also the Supreme Court, but no one is going to investigate these bodies. This does not mean, of course, that the politician being investigated is not guilty. But the motivation is “get something on him” to be used for other purposes. A fellow in Stalin’s NKVD secret police once said “You give me the man, I’ll give you the charges”.
    These investigations are instigated for one of two reasons:

    (1) To bring about the removal of a politician in office- a good example was the removal of Rabin as Prime Minister and head of the Labor Party in 1977. Someone else wanted the job. Another was the removal of Ezer Weizman as President in 2000. Someone else wanted his job as well.

    (2) To keep the politician on a short leash. The best example was Ariel Sharon. A couple of days after it was announced that he was being investigated, he announced he would destroy Gush Katif, in direct contradiction to his election promises. TV political commentator Amnon Abramovitch then made his famous comment that said “as long as Sharon is doing what we want (i.e. destroying Gush Katif), he must be protected like an etrog”. And sure enough, Attorney General Mazuz dropped the charges against him.
    I suspect that the investigations against Olmert are of the same type, and they are working out well for people who agree with your political views. See how he suddenly announced he is willing to give up the Golan, how he is willing to give up national security in the prisoner exchange deals, see how he is willing to have Palestinian police rearmed after we saw in the past how these arms were turned against us. Olmert has gotten the message and is accelerating the concessions he is willing to make.
    As you yourself said, you are quite willing to tolerate corruption in a politician as long as he does what you want. As long as most Israeli think like this, corruption will continue. Sure, the things that have been exposed in Olmert’s case will be avoided by politicians in the future, but they will always find new ways to get around the law.

  2. A further thought:

    What you wrote here is a good example of what we might call “the Arabization” of Israeli political culture. Ever since the creation of Israel 60 years ago, Arab rulers have excused their failures to reform, democratize and end corruption by claiming that doing those things would allow the “nefarious Zionist entity” to infiltrate and subvert their societies by manipulating the democratic process for their own evil purposes. Israel’s leaders, both Right and Left are doing something similar…. justifying their claim that their supporters should overlook their corrupt and anti-democratic behavior because there are “bigger issues” at stake. As you yourself state, it is more important for you that Olmert knock down settlements than be honest and efficient (even though no Leftist government has ever knocked down a single settlement, only the “pro-settlement, Right-wing Likud” has ever done that.). Right-wing leaders did the same (particularly Sharon in his earlier “Right-wing” incarnation) telling his supporters to ignore his corrupt practices (which went way back) because he was building settlements.
    This shows why, when we look at the bottom line, that it is NOT in the particularist interests of the ruling cliques in both Israel AND the Arab countries to end the Israeli-Arab conflict. They are all making a lot out of it. It is a wonderful to distract their people. If it ever were to end, their populations might decide to take a closer look at what their leaders are really doing and they will see how their leaders have been robbing them for years and then demand real changes at the top.

  3. I am reminded of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men”, a fictionalization of Louisiana’s depression era governor and senator Huey Long. It explores the theme “you have to do bad to do good” – at least in politics. So if, say, there were kickbacks or other wheeling and dealing to build roads and bridges, then that was the bad – the corruption or favors needed to “get things done”. The good was the fact that there were roads and bridges and infrastructure that never existed before, and was sorely needed for the prosperity of the people.

    Is Olmert doing “bad” to do “good”? Time will tell.

    Is it evidence of the “arabization” of Israeli politics? Perhaps. But corruption and accomplishments as strange political bedfellows certainly isn’t restricted to the Middle East. It may, as Robert Penn Warren pondered, just go with the territory of being a politician who must acquire influence in order to accomplish change.

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