(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The fact that two separate Israeli courts sent two ex-ministers to do long stretches behind bars last Wednesday confers no great honor on our society. Their offenses stained the reputation of this country's public servants and top political echelon.
That said, the fact that former Kadima finance minister Avraham Hirchson and Shas's Shlomo Benizri, who served as health minister as well as labor and welfare minister, weren't let off with a reprimand and a slap on the wrist goes a fair way to counterbalancing the shame, underscoring intolerance to corruption in high places.
In this respect, the situation in Israel is considerably better than in many other democracies.
Benizri's conviction for bribery was upheld on appeal by the Supreme Court and his original 18-month sentence nearly trebled to four years. That in itself is highly unusual. The Supreme Court rarely involves itself in sentencing issues. When it does, it almost never increases sentences as drastically as it did in Benizri's case. This conveys the message to public figures that they cannot expect to get off lightly if they break the law.
Hirchson was sentenced in Tel Aviv District Court to 65 months in prison for embezzlement from the National Federation of Workers, his sinecure for many years. Considering his age (going on 69), this is no trifling punishment.
To be sure, this isn't the first time stiff sentences have been meted out. Back in 1976, Asher Yadlin, though appointed as governor of the Bank of Israel, was tried on bribery charges. A member of the Labor establishment aristocracy - he was married to Eliayhu Golomb's daughter and Moshe Sharett's niece - Yadlin was nevertheless sentenced to five years. Concurrently, Michael Tzur, ex-director-general of the Trade and Industry Ministry, was sentenced to 15 years for corruption. Also in the 1970s, customs director-general David Peled, number three in the Treasury's hierarchy, got five years for taking bribes from car importers.
NEVERTHELESS, in some cases the authorities have glaringly hesitated to act. Ariel Sharon's son Gilad was let off the hook for the "Greek Island affair" after the attorney-general ruled that the millions paid him for basically surfing the Internet weren't meant as bribes. His brother Omri was sentenced to a mere seven months for felony-fraud, and served just four.
Other question marks are raised by the pronounced sluggishness of the prosecution to move ahead expeditiously with the trials of former premier Ehud Olmert (on a variety of corruption charges) and former president Moshe Katsav (on sexual assault and rape charges). The Olmert case is virtually on hold, and the Katsav case will be heard only as of September; and that's no certainty either.
The confluence of so many episodes (and even more charges which didn't mature into indictments) inevitably creates the impression of a society riddled with corruption. Israel slid down Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (CPI) - from 30th slot in 2007 to 33rd last year (equal with Dominica, just slightly behind Portugal, and slightly ahead of the UAE).
CPI grading must be taken with a grain of salt as its methodology and thoroughness vary significantly from country to country, and from year to year. Besides lack of CPI consistency and standardization, corruption is calculatingly covert and therefore impossible to measure objectively. Nevertheless, CPI figures mirror popular Israeli perceptions.
But we mustn't be too hard on ourselves.
If anything, the unforgiving sentences meted to two top political players show a judicial system more prone than elsewhere to prosecute headliner offenders.
Former French president Jacques Chirac was surrounded by scandal from his days as Paris mayor. Subsequent high office conferred upon him an immunity he'd have never enjoyed in Israel. Indeed, had Barack Obama's house-purchasing imbroglio occurred here, he might have found himself under police investigation.
The national embarrassment of having two ex-ministers sent to prison needs to be put in perspective. Israel does not have more corruption than in past years, and, comparatively speaking, we are not a particularly corrupt country. We are, moreover, blessed with an indefatigable investigative press, and with police, prosecutors and judges more determined than ever to uphold the rule of law.