The sentencing of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to six years in prison by Tel Aviv District Court Judge David Rosen may well be a day of reckoning for Israel’s political and business leaders, but is the age of impunity over for crimes committed by such high-ranking individuals? The answer to this question is no—not only because power often corrupts, but also due to the endemic generational corruption that has infected successive political and business leaders, the majority of whom escaped justice. Thus, the sentencing of Olmert will not deter corrupt individuals. It will make them only more careful in their dealings as they cannot resist the temptation of accepting largesse that businesses and politics present.
Israel certainly is not alone: There is hardly any country that does not have its share of corruption at the highest echelons of business and government. But for Israel, corruption charges against top officials appear to be more prevalent.
The question is, are there specific reasons behind that, and what the implications are when leaders begin their careers as suspects who cannot be trusted? The result is that many Israelis dismiss their elected officials as self-serving politicians whose interests trump their political party’s interest and even that of the state.
There are four psychological dimensions to this phenomenon. First is the sense of impunity, as any charges leveled by prosecutors against a high-profile individual must provide undisputed evidence beyond any shadow of a doubt; it often takes years to establish guilt or innocence.
As a result, the list of those accused of wrongdoing but never charged with a crime is long and is particularly revealing. It includes Prime Minister Netanyahu, accused of influence-peddling, former President Ezer Weizman, accused of accepting illegal gifts of money, and former Housing Minister Avraham Ofer, accused of embezzlement. Moreover, the current foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman was charged, though not convicted, with fraud and breach of trust.
This allows for greater infractions by would-be offenders, especially because they are guided by skilled defense attorneys who are waiting in the wings to take on corruption charges and mostly succeed in exonerating their defendants.
Indeed, a condition of rampant, endemic political corruption is known as a “kleptocracy”—literally, “rule by thieves.” Aristophanes, the Greek dramatist, put it succinctly when he said, “Look at the orators in our republics; as long as they are poor, both state and people can only praise their uprightness; but once they are fattened on the public funds, they conceive a hatred for justice, plan intrigues against the people and attack the democracy.”
The second dimension is more cultural in nature as many Israelis accuse their elected officials of being Ganavim (thieves), thereby justifying their own wrongdoings. The pressure of the high cost of living, unaffordable housing and high taxes invite corruption. As Henry Kissinger once put it, “Corrupt politicians make the other ten percent look bad.”
The third is that nearly all Israeli officials feel that they are serving their country well, and many do; accepting “gifts,” from their perspective, is not bribery, albeit most are given in cash to facilitate a transaction, such as the Holyland building project. Olmert may well fit this category, as well as the real estate developer of the Holyland project, Hillel Cherny.
The fourth is the persistence of the occupation and the settlement enterprise continues to produce an abundance of shady deals and hold many politicians of all political stripes in bondage.
The powerful settler movement and real estate developers, who have special interests in building and expanding new settlements, spare no money to entice public officials to support their underhanded schemes.
Even more corrosive for the state is that when corruption of senior officials is, or at a minimum is perceived to be, rampant, it has major implications both domestically and internationally.
Lack of public trust of political officials is the first casualty, which makes nearly all governments suspect as a result of widespread corruption. Moreover, since all Israeli governments have always been a coalition of several political parties, the wheeling and dealing to reach a consensus often precipitates compromises akin to corruption at the expense of the general public.
The second casualty of the indictment and trial of Olmert is the Kadima party. It was the one centrist political party Israel needed, and had indeed filled that vacuum. What happened to Olmert has basically destroyed the political center.
Formed by the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Kadima was the one party that actually attempted to change the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which began with the withdrawal from Gaza with the intention of continuing withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
The corruption charges against Olmert, who succeeded Sharon, may have scuttled the prospect of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Olmert left office when he was, according to his own public statement, on the brink of forging a peace accord. It is entirely possible that a historic opportunity for peace was squandered as result.
On the international scene, Israel is seen as the intransigent party in the peace process, and many global leaders view political corruption as an extension of the occupation, which spans over two generations of Israelis and corrodesthe moral values on which the state was created.
Israel draws a special international focus, not only because of the egregious corruption cases of top officials, but particularly because of the perpetual Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For this reason, Israel is judged by a different standard and is expected to conduct itself wisely to continue to earn international support.
In the final analysis, Israel as a democracy is in danger not because of external enemies but because of self-consuming moral compromises. As Edmund Burke wisely said, “Among a people generally corrupt liberty cannot long exist.”
In his verdict, Judge Rosen correctly stated that crimes of bribery pollute civil service, destroy governments and represent one of the worst crimes in the penal code.“A public official,” he added, “who accepts bribesis tantamount to a traitor” because they betray the trust of the public.
Yes, the message of Judge Rosenis clear but as long as the public remains complacent at best, the extent to which government officials will heed it remains in serious doubt.