JACKY MATZA 88.
(photo credit: )
Yesterday's funeral of Teddy Kollek, who epitomized the dedicated public official, on the background of a new crop of alleged corruption scandals, only accentuates the feeling that something is rotten in Jerusalem. It is hard to avoid the sense that we are slipping into a swamp of lowering standards, in which not only politicians, but the upper echelons of the civil service cannot be trusted to respect the laws upon which every government institution must stand.
On Tuesday, 22 senior officials and businessmen, including Tax Authority chief Jackie Matza, his predecessor Eitan Rub, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's long-time assistant, Shula Zaken, were brought in for questioning at the National Fraud Squad in Bat Yam. The officials are suspected of a form of bribery, in which tax breaks were exchanged for influence over government appointments.
Also this week, it was reported that Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson is under investigation for having covered up an embezzlement scandal that occurred within a workers' union while he was chairman of it a few years ago.
We do not know, of course, whether these arrests and investigations will lead to indictments, and if so, whether the accused will be convicted in a court of law. We hope, along with everyone who wishes deeply for a clean government, that the charges are baseless.
But even if this particular situation proves to be a product of police overzealousness (which might also be a significant problem given the poor record of convictions in such cases), each new scandal reduces the public's confidence in their government to a new low.
This crisis of confidence feeds on itself. Every scandal, even those in which cases are closed without going to trial - such as that of the suspicions surrounding immensely well-paid work given to Ariel Sharon's son in the so-called Greek Island affair - leaves the impression that corruption is endemic to our system.
When Sharon was in office, there was a sense that the public, as much as it is concerned over corruption, was willing to overlook it in the case of a popular leader. Indeed, corruption has become like the weather - something to complain about but not to expect to influence or change. This despairing approach is not warranted, both because things may not be as bad as they seem, and because there are steps that can be taken.
Asher Meir, who directs the Business Ethics Center in Jerusalem, wrote in these pages yesterday that "there is evidence that the kind of abuses alleged [at the Tax Authority], even if they took place, are becoming less rather than more frequent."
It is not unequivocally clear that the nostalgic view, namely that government has moved consistently from cleaner to dirtier, is accurate. Many point out that the seemingly unprecedented plethora of investigations of top officials may not be because there is more corruption, but because a few decades ago such behavior was simply swept under the rug.
But even if there is no room for despair, the situation hardly justifies complacency. Even if headway is being made against corruption, the growing distrust in government is corrosive, and creates a vicious circle of citizens who have lost faith in government, and public servants who, unfortunately, reflect the public's low opinion of them.
The way out of this is to continue to root out corruption directly, to reduce the size and complexity of government, and to increase the public's ability to hold politicians accountable. This means implementing what are arguably the two most important recommendations of the Megidor Commission on electoral reform: reducing the number of ministers to 18 and electing half the Knesset directly, through regional elections.
Already, whether or not Israelis trust their tax authorities, we have a huge "gray" economy built on tax evasion. This did not arise because of corruption, but because of a tax system crying out for reform, simplification, and a reduction of the burden on the average, not just the well-connected, taxpayer.
The fight against corruption is part and parcel of the battle for smaller, more transparent and efficient government. We must resist the temptation to write off politicians and government as unreformable; there is much that can and should be done.