Business ethics 88.
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The conviction of Knesset member and former cabinet minister Shlomo Benizri says a little about the state of public-sector ethics in Israel today, but the reaction to his conviction says a lot more.
About two years ago, Benizri was indicted for a variety of offenses involving using his public office for private gain, in particular by giving inside information and preferential treatment to businessman Moshe Sela in return for money and valuable services. This week, Benizri was convicted on a number of these offenses, based largely on the testimony of Sela himself.
That Benizri is guilty of such serious crimes is certainly dismaying. But it is not, in itself, necessarily symptomatic of a wider problem with public-sector ethics in Israel. All legislatures have occasional cases of bribery, and Israel is no exception. What is most dismaying is the evidently minor political damage that the conviction seems to be causing. Benizri has announced that he does not intend to resign, and no pressure whatsoever is evident from within his party. It seems that Shas doesn't think a bribery conviction here and there really matter to its voters, or to its political partners.
While corruption is nothing new in Israel or any other country, getting caught used to be a severe political liability. In the early days of the state, fewer cases of public-sector corruption reached the courts, but more of them were taken care of within the political parties, who were concerned about their image.
In a fascinating article on the changing attitudes toward corruption, former Jerusalem Post columnist Anshel Pfeffer wrote in January 2007: "For the state's first 25 years its leaders, including David Ben-Gurion, regularly covered up cases of embezzlement, resolving matters behind closed doors. Former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner reminisced on Army Radio... that when she was a young police prosecutor 50 years ago, it was unheard of for a politician to be brought in for questioning."
Ben-Gurion may have resolved matters behind closed doors, but the impression is that he resolved them, presumably, with the end of the guilty party's political career. The lack of involvement of law enforcement may reflect, as much as anything else, the effectiveness of the political system itself in rooting out corruption.
Later, perceived corruption in the Labor Party was a major factor in the 1977 electoral success of Herut (precursor to today's Likud) and Dash, leading to the first electoral defeat for Labor after almost 30 years in power.
I don't know if today's politicians are any more corrupt than those in the past, but the electorate's tolerance for corruption seems to be much greater, reaching an alarming indifference. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was forced from office, in part because it was revealed that his wife, Leah, had a modest dollar account in the United States. But prime minister Ariel Sharon had enough political capital not only to stay in office, but even to launch a new party despite an endless series of criminal investigations against him and his political allies, including one that landed his son, Omri, in jail for crimes committed on behalf of his father.
After Estherina Tartman was caught having included gross fabrications on her CV, Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman removed her very reluctantly from be a candidate for tourism minister, at first trying to downplay the significance of the fraud (which was not however a crime). Tartman continues to serve in the Knesset; evidently Lieberman doesn't consider audacious lies in the service of political advancement to be a political liability among Israel Beiteinu voters.
Benizri is not the first Shas member to be convicted. Raphael Pinhasi was convicted in 1997, but did not resign from the Knesset. Former chairman Aryeh Deri was convicted in 1999. In 2006, Yair Peretz was convicted of obtaining a phony diploma and did leave the Knesset, but was allowed to run on the subsequent Shas ticket. Peretz was replaced by Ofer Hugi, who was in turn convicted of submitting forged documents.
Shas supporters claim that their legislators don't enjoy equal protection of the law, and that the legal establishment is engaging in a witch hunt against their party, so they are convicted for crimes that other public figures are allowed to get away with. (Peretz never claimed that he was innocent of cheating to obtain his degree, he merely claimed that "everybody does it.")
It is hard for me to evaluate these claims; they even have a certain plausibility. But my claim is precisely that the legal establishment shouldn't be necessary to eliminate corrupt legislators; if the political system is functioning well, it should be eliminating them itself.
Revelations of misconduct by an occasional legislator are always dismaying, but not necessarily a source for worry. But the very low political price that these revelations seem to bear is extremely worrisome. French diplomat Joseph de Maistre commented almost 200 years ago, "Every nation has the government it deserves." Israel will never have, or deserve, honest and competent legislators if the voters don't insist on them.
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.