TEL AVIV – Police investigations, commissions of inquiry examining the errors committed during the Lebanon war of 2006, repugnance at former President Moshe Katsav’s alleged sex crimes, and now Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s announcement that, with charges of corruption swirling about him, he will resign in September: all of this suggests profound wounds in Israel’s moral tissue.
Old Israelis like myself are stupefied by the scope and scale of today’s corruption and the multiplying investigations. Is corruption something that has always existed here but was somehow hidden until now? Are we learning of it because our prosecutor and police are bolder and better equipped nowadays?
I do not believe that corruption is coming to light just because law enforcement is somehow better, or because citizens, like the presidential staff who accused President Katsav of sexual crimes and harassment, are more courageous. What is coming to light is a much deeper evil, a loss of values within Israeli society and its government, such as never existed before.
This moral deterioration is most prominent in the behavior of today’s accused, who are much more impudent and aggressive than in the past. I remember how in the 1970’s, when suspicion of corruption arose with respect to a Labor Party minister, the minister took his own life. So did a director of a great bank, a brilliant economist, when he was suspected of financial crimes.
When Pinkhas Sapir, Prime Minister Golda Meir’s legendary finance minister died, all that he owned was a modest apartment in Tel Aviv and some small savings. David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founder and most prominent political personality, spent the last 11 years of his life living in a little wooden house in the desert kibbutz Sde Boker. Today, that house’s extreme modesty still surprises visitors.
Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin also lived until his death in a simple apartment in Tel Aviv. Not the smallest shadow of the slightest suspicion of corruption ever disturbed his peace.
True, corruption has also become more common in other countries in recent years, and many democracies are stained by links between politics and finance. Economic interests are supplanting ideology as the motor of politics, and money serves as the key instrument in elections. But how is it that Israel, which only a few years ago was hardly touched by fraud and corruption, is now swept by them?
The recent episodes of corruption, I believe, are rooted in the division, beginning in 1967, of two altogether distinct sets of norms and values. On the one hand, the moral and jurisdictional principles of the democratic state have continued to be applied in Israel in accordance with the tradition of the rule of law. On the other hand, in the Palestinian territories, a new system of values has been progressively established.
These two systems operate side by side, but the border that separates them has gradually become more porous, and the open breaches in it have become ever greater. Unlike colonial states, in which colonizers came from distant metropolises (and only in small numbers) the Palestinian territories are just across the border from Israel.
In the West Bank the organs of jurisdiction operate in a completely different way. Palestinian lands are illegally confiscated. Jewish settlers act outside of the law and commit provocative acts harming Palestinians, rarely incurring any penal sanctions. Injustice and exploitation are an everyday occurrence, justified by references to security or the ideology of Greater Israel.
The boundaries between the two types of legalities could not remain impenetrable forever. Little by little, the state of occupation, which should have been temporary, became a stable reality, and the policy of creating Israeli settlements in the heart of the Palestinian population strengthened the connection between Israel and the occupied territories. The norms of a colonial and militarist regime have begun to infiltrate the governing organs of Israel’s democracy, perverting their proper activities. Politicians, functionaries, army officials – usually coming from the right – introduced into Israeli political life the disgraceful norms in force in the occupied territories. So corruption has grown.
Fortunately, Israel’s judicial system remains independent and rests on foundations of proven integrity. The presence of many women in the magistrature and the police has also contributed significantly, in my view, to reinforcing the system. But when inadmissible norms become tolerated in silence, even the strongest juridical system becomes destabilized.
Nor should we forget that the global economy, with which Israel is deeply integrated, creates infinite and complex opportunities for financial crimes.
In these conditions, a strong judicial system and police force do not always suffice to contain corruption. The support of public opinion is also needed.
I have the impression that the latest disturbing episodes of corruption among politicians and state functionaries have awakened Israel’s citizens from their stupor. They are now demanding that the rule of law and justice return to their central place in public life. Of course, the true test will be whether such demands are reflected in September’s parliamentary election.