JACKY MATZA 88.
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How serious is the Tax Authority scandal, really? After the initial shock of the arrests of its senior officials on Tuesday passed, you could hear two conflicting views in financial and legal circles on Tax Authority Director Jacky Matza's alleged wrongdoings.
"Matza deserves the Israel Prize," said a lawyer who represents some of the country's largest businesses.
"In the year he's been on the job, he brought in billions for the country. The national tax revenues are up 7 percent thanks to him and if he cut some deals with businessmen on the way, that's fine, it's only helped the economy."
"Matza has done nothing," a director of a major government agency said, sounding an opposite judgment. "Revenue is up because of growth. He was the wrong candidate for the job and I can easily believe that he had to pay some favors in return for his appointment."
Whether or not Matza and his colleagues were partners in organized crime or simply cutting through red tape, the difference of opinion is just an echo of a much wider argument. Is Israel in danger of drowning under a dirty wave of serious corruption, or is this just a normal level of public impropriety and those saying otherwise simply conducting a witch hunt?
On the face of it, there's ample ammunition for the charge that politics in Israel has never been so corrupt. It's not only Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other senior figures in Kadima who are mired in assorted investigations and allegations of serious corruption, the other main parties are also tainted. In the Likud, Binyamin Netanyahu and Limor Livnat are both involved in the investigation over whether they allowed public funds to be used for opinion polls.
And Labor still has a time bomb ticking under it: Will the police open another investigation into allegations of fraud in the way Amir Peretz signed up new party members before the leadership primary.
Last week, former Shas MK Ofer Hugi was convicted on serious fraud charges, the fifth parliamentarian from that party to be found guilty in a decade. Former minister Shlomo Benizri might soon become No. 6 when the verdict in his bribery case is delivered.
On trial alongside him is one of the country's most popular spiritual leaders, Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, and only a few months ago the attorney-general announced that Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger should resign after lying over receiving illegal hospitality.
Nor is the highest holder of secular office clean of suspicion. President Moshe Katsav is under investigation, not only for sexual assault but also for illegally handing out pardons.
Corruption is routinely uncovered in local government and in the civil service. Now that it's reached the elite branch of the Treasury, no one seems immune.
But is it really as bad as it used to be? Corruption scandals have broken out before. The revelation that Israel Air Force Brig.-Gen. Rami Dotan received millions of dollars in bribes from American defense companies rocked the IDF 16 years ago and caused major damages to the strategic relationship with the US. Since then the army has been relatively corruption free, but that hasn't helped its image over the last few months.
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 this week that when she was a young police prosecutor 50 years ago, it was unheard of for a politician to be brought in for questioning.
In the mid-1970s, then-attorney-general Aharon Barak put a stop to all that by relentlessly pursuing investigations and pressing charges against corruption in high places, until he finally brought down prime minister Yitzhak Rabin over his wife's illegal foreign bank account. Are we now undergoing a wave of allegations similar to the one that finally ended the days of the eternal Mapai government?
The present attorney-general, Menahem Mazuz, began his tenure by deciding not to press charges against prime minister Ariel Sharon over the Greek Island case and sharply criticizing former state prosecutor Edna Arbel for being much too eager to put politicians on trial, even when the evidence was insufficient to secure a conviction.
It seems that the various law enforcement agencies are prone to shooting themselves in the foot. As in the case of prosecutor Liora Glatt-Berkovich, who ended up in the dock after leaking the investigation of an illegal loan received by Sharon. The latest anticorruption warrior, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, has run into a storm of controversy over his gung ho attitude, and his special advisor of corruption, former Police Cmdr. Yaakov Borovsky, is himself being investigated for dirty dealings.
Many politicians, leaders and businesspeople are now accusing the police, Justice Ministry and media of overhyping the corruption threat and creating a climate that threatens to paralyze the government and the economy, and deter talented individuals from entering politics. There is a great degree of self-rightousness in this claim. A more convincing argument might be that the public's tolerance toward corruption in high places might have been higher if Israel's leadership was at least seen as capable of running the country.
Lord Acton's famous dictum that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" has a less-known third part; "Great men are almost always bad men." If our politicians and senior officials were indeed great men, we might be a little more forgiving of their bad sides.
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