(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The possible return of certain public figures to the political arena raises a
series of normative, socio-political, and legal questions.
we adopt a permissive approach toward convicted politicians? If not, why has the
permissive approach gained currency in Israel’s public discourse? Finally,
should we prohibit through legislation the return to political life of
politicians who are convicted of crimes?
We believe the permissive approach
ought to be rejected. The proper public norm should be that public figures who
have been convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude should be considered
persona non grata in government as a rule. Governmental power places many
temptations before office holders. To successfully resist such temptations, one
needs a strong ethical backbone. Clearly, the likelihood that a person who has
erred in the past will act inappropriately in the future is higher than the
likelihood of such behavior on the part of someone without a criminal
Second, the more senior a person becomes, the greater the
likelihood that he will maintain connections to individuals who were involved in
his prior criminal activities. The reelection of this person strengthens the
chances that at least some of these same individuals will, once again, fill
significant roles in public life, with all that this implies. Third, the
reelection of a criminal teaches other politicians that they need not fear the
public’s response when considering whether to act corruptly. As a result, the
public exposes itself to an increased danger of corruption.
reelection of a criminal is likely to have a corrupting influence both on the
government and on the public as a whole. It is highly doubtful that a person who
has been convicted of a crime of this kind can be a positive role model for the
public at large or for his subordinates. The reelection of a criminal undermines
anti-corruption norms and weakens the hands of law enforcement authorities
Finally – and independent of everything stated
above – the election of a convicted criminal is likely to hurt the public’s
faith in government.
It is unclear to what extent a permissive approach
has been adopted by the Israeli public. To date, this question has not been
researched; nor has it been put to the test.
However, in recent
elections, the Israeli public did not reject politicians with a checkered
history of ethical integrity (but no criminal record).
number of politicians, journalists, and public figures openly support the
permissive approach. Thus, we may safely assume that support for the permissive
approach is not a marginal phenomenon. How can this permissive approach be
explained? At first glance, the reason is simple: it serves the interests of
individuals who have economic power and who work to advance the reelection of
their cronies. People’s discomfort may also be attenuated by the realization
that politics are never particularly clean. This truism is a reality not unique
to Israel. However, such widespread permissiveness does not exist in countries
where the rule of law is considered strong – even though they are not free of
vested interests or of the less savory aspects of politics. The other aspect of
the explanation relates specifically to Israel.
political-security situation contributes to a sense that national security
trumps all other considerations.
And when it comes to the task of
handling a security crisis decisively, leaders lacking moral inhibitions are
sometimes perceived as more fit for the job. The enormous responsibility
shouldered by the prime minister and other senior officials also encourages a
forgiving attitude toward their involvement in corruption. How significant is corrupt behavior when compared to
the ability to deal successfully with the nuclear threat to Israel’s existence?
In a society torn by ideological controversy, there is a tendency to place
greater emphasis on a candidate’s political stances over questions of ethical
integrity since “the end justifies the means.” From the perspective of the peace
camp, how important is it that a leader has been a little corrupt if he can
resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict? From the viewpoint of the nationalist camp,
how significant is a bit of corruption when compared to ensuring the future of
the settlement enterprise? There is an institutional problem as well: In the
current Israeli electoral system, voters cannot affect the composition of a
party list on election day. For voters who consider ethical integrity to be a
primary consideration, but who also identify with a party’s platform, it is
impossible to disassociate themselves from corrupt individuals who may appear on
the party’s list.
In a society like Israel’s, where politics exhibits a
strong tribal affinity, there is a tendency to forgive the leaders of the tribe.
The candidate is “one of our own,” a member of the family, and all his sins are
On top of all of this, two problematic perceptions have become
entrenched among the Israeli public. The first is that most elected officials
are corrupt; therefore, the difference between a proven criminal and other
politicians is, merely, that the first has been caught. This being the case, a
conviction of corruption loses its significance as a fundamental issue that
separates the convict from his peers.
The second denies the existence of
an ethical-public arena, which has conditions and demands that go beyond those
required by law. According to this perception, whatever is legal is not just
permitted but strictly kosher. This perception admits no possibility for some
conduct to be legal, yet improper or inappropriate. In short, Israelis seem to
lack the basic notion of “it is not done.”
We reject these wrongheaded
perceptions. Only a minority of elected officials are tainted by corruption, and
a society that does not have a political arena governed by ethical public norms
cannot be a law-abiding society. And yet, since these beliefs are apparently
widespread, the question arises: Should the Knesset pass legislation that
absolutely forbids convicted politicians from running for election? We think
not. From a legal perspective, there is no justification for such an absolute,
sweeping norm. First, should a 19-year-old squad commander, who received some
sort of benefit in exchange for releasing a subordinate from military duty (thus
committing the crime of bribery), be disqualified from running for election as a
Member of Knesset at the age of 50? A single error, even if severe, followed by
publically expressed remorse does not justify the permanent legal nullification
of a citizen’s right to be elected to the Knesset.
Second, a legislative
norm of this nature will only strengthen the belief that only the letter of the
law matters, leaving no room for ethical-public norms. This is reminiscent of an
old joke that Woody Allen tells in “Annie Hall.” Two elderly women are having
breakfast at a resort. The first says, “The food at this place is really
terrible,” and the second adds, “Yeah, I know… and such small portions.”Prof.
Mordechai Kremnitzer is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy
Institute. Dr. Doron Navot is a lecturer in the School of Political Science at
the University of Haifa and is the author of the recently released "
Corruption in Israel."