(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Former Shas MK and cabinet minister Shlomo Benizri initially was convicted of bribery and related offenses and sentenced to 18 months in prison. After appealing his sentence, it was extended to four years in prison.
Shas chairman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai recently wrote a letter to President Shimon Peres requesting a pardon for Benizri. Yishai claims pardoning Benizri is justified for the following reasons: his sentence is excessive for his crimes; its severity gives the impression of discrimination against Sepharadim; and Benizri was an outstanding public servant.
While it does not appear in the letter, Yishai later clarified that he did not ask for Benizri to be exempted from prison altogether. He also did not claim that Benizri was not guilty of taking bribes.
Are these valid consideration for giving a pardon? And is Yishai the right person to be requesting one?
An unusually harsh sentence is certainly a basis for granting a pardon. One of the fundamental justifications for the president's authority to pardon is to step in when it is perceived that the sentencing system did not proceed fairly. But what about the other claims?
If Yishai is acknowledging that Benizri is a crook who abused his public trust for private gain, but should get away with it just like like Ashkenazi politicians do, then the claim has little merit. It's not right to let one criminal get away with murder just because others do, too.
I believe Yishai's claim is as follows: The kind of behavior that earned Shas MKs Benizri, Aryeh Deri, Ofer Hugi, Yair Levy, Yair Peretz and Rafael Pinhasi prison sentences is legitimate, or at any rate borderline. Either these practices are "business as usual" in Israeli politics, or justified "reverse discrimination."
For example, Hugi was convicted of obtaining public funds for fictitious students. If this practice was widespread and usually ignored, then the case could be made that Hugi was innocent of wrongdoing. If the practice was limited to Shas-sponsored schools but these schools got less funding than others, then the case could be made that the subterfuge was necessary to correct an unjust law.
Peretz was convicted of obtaining a BA by submitting plagiarized papers. He claimed that this, too, was "business as usual" and that most other students also do it. This still raises the question of why Peretz should get benefits for obtaining a BA with no meaning. But this, too, could be viewed as "reverse discrimination": The government discriminates by giving benefits to employees with secular advanced education but not for those with a religious education.
Are these claims credible? Do they justify a pardon?
I think there is some credibility to the claim that Shas MKs have been nailed for offenses that others have gotten away with. The most salient example is Ezer Weizman, who obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts over a period of decades yet no legal action was ever taken against him. Peres himself was investigated by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss as a result of apparent irregularities in the disposition of the many gifts and awards he received during his time as a public servant. Ariel Sharon became wealthy during public service; he was investigated but never indicted.
However, I believe that any vulnerability of Shas MKs has nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with politics and perhaps carelessness. Powerful and skillful politicians in any country have many ways of shielding themselves from prosecution; less powerful politicians have fewer ways.
Omri Sharon is an Ashkenazi who managed to stay out of prison when he was well-connected, but when he fell from power he also found himself vulnerable to prosecution and landed in jail.
It is presumptuous for Shas hacks to liken themselves to figures like Weizman, not because they are not Ashkenazi but rather because they are just not as powerful and well-connected. It may also be that they are less careful, but that's not a good reason to pardon someone.
I don't think any of the conduct described above can be justified as "business as usual." This kind of conduct is disgraceful when carried out by any individual and particularly by any MK, even if a few manage to get away with it. As an academic, I find it is particularly outrageous to have a legislator openly justifying cheating to get a college degree.
Finally, I think that even to the extent the claims have merit, Yishai is the wrong person to be advancing them. He may want Shas members to have the same "rights" that he thinks other public servants have to get away with a little mischief, but we have to remember there are good rights and bad rights. It's often bad to have too many rights.
One obvious example: The Talmud points out that it would harm women to be exempted from commercial law, since no one would agree to do business with them. The "right" to get away with petty corruption, even it is enjoyed by other parties, is not one a political party should publicly request.
If it is known that Shas MKs are held to a higher standard of probity than other lawmakers, that should be good for Shas. If, on the contrary, Shas MKs publicly demand to be held to a low standard - i.e. Shas leaders should get off lightly for taking bribes if they are effective public servants - it sends a message that clean government is just not an agenda item for that party.
As a public figure, Yishai should have limited his appeal to any perceived unfairness in the length of the sentence - and let others who are not public servants lobby for a pardon on the other grounds.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).