To what extent do Israelis perceive their government as corrupt and influenced by a select group with inordinate power? Quite a few, according to a survey conducted by Transparency International that was released on Tuesday.
In fact, of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries surveyed, only Greece ranked higher than Israel’s 73 percent when it came to public perception of the extent to which government decisions are swayed by well-connected and powerful players who were not elected by the public.
Israel’s ranking in a wide range of corruption measures as measured by Transparency International remained essentially unchanged compared to last year.
Judging from perceptions, it seems that disproportionately high levels of financial power concentrated in the hands of a few presents perhaps the biggest obstacle to combating political corruption in Israel.
It is notoriously difficult to measure corruption levels.
Counting the number of cases reported in the news media or the number of indictments brought in the courts might reflect the extent of graft and payola. But it could just as well be a measure of a society’s intolerance to the phenomenon and the effectiveness of the judiciary and investigative journalism in combating it.
Transparency International chooses a methodology that measures perceptions. Perhaps, Israelis are particularly sensitive to, or critical of, any behavior that even smacks of corruption. This might partially explain the state’s high ranking. But even after factoring this possibility in, these corruption rates are unacceptably high.
The nature of homegrown political corruption has changed over the years. If in the 1950s shady dealings revolved around maintaining and strengthening the ruling Mapai party’s hold on political leadership, in the 1980s and 1990s political corruption was often connected to political agendas.
For instance, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s refusal to remove Shas’s Aryeh Deri as interior minister even after the attorney-general notified him that he would be indicting Deri on corruption charges was based on Rabin’s need for Deri’s political support for the Oslo Accords, at a time when there was no Jewish majority.
The direct election of the prime minister, which was temporarily instituted in the 1990s, was a failed attempt by the Left to overcome a consistent right-wing majority in the Knesset. On the Right, meanwhile, questionable methods – such as politically motivated appointments in government offices and the bypassing of laws – were used to advance the building of settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
In recent years, political corruption seems to be motivated more by base greed and the possibilities resulting from the rise of big business interests. Recent cases that come to mind are the embezzlement of millions of shekels by the Likud’s Avraham Hirschson while serving as chairman of the Histadrut labor federation; the accepting of bribes worth millions of shekels by Shas’s Shlomo Benizri, in exchange for inside information on foreign workers while serving as labor minister; or the “breach of trust” offense committed by former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Combating of political corruption needs to focus on the problematic relations that have developed in recent years between business interests and politicians.
An exorbitant amount of financial power is concentrated in the hands of a few families and their business partners. Often, reference is made to the “sextet:” Zadik Bino, Nochi Dankner, Idan Ofer, Lev Leviev, Yitzhak Tshuva and Dudi Weissman.
Too often, high-ranking public officials – particularly in the Treasury, but also in the IDF, the Interior Ministry, the judiciary and elsewhere – end up with lucrative jobs in the private sector working for one or other of the powerful “families.” The individuals then proceed to use their connections in the public sector to advance the interests of their new bosses.
If we are to succeed in changing both the perceptions and the reality of political corruption, we must concentrate on finding ways to reduce the problematic nexus of business and politics in Israel.