Burning Issues 27: Iran vs. corruption

Burning Issues 1-26: Last three: Fading Quartet, N. Korea nuclear disarmament, Jewish identity and UK Jewry.
Question #27
Some observers argue that political corruption has become so rampant that it threatens Israel's existence. What do you think? Contributers (read it all or click on name to read post; link to writer's most recent column follows entry)
  • Jonathan Rosenblum
  • Michael Freund
  • MJ Rosenberg
  • Calev Ben-David
  • Isi Leibler
  • Elliot Jager Jonathan Rosenblum: Corruption of public officials is not a short-run threat to Israel's existence. Nor is it even clear that it is more endemic today than in the past. (Under older standards of behavior, it is unlikely that the cases of former justice minister Haim Ramon and President Katsav would have even been prosecuted.) At the same time, public officials who are busy thinking about their personal advantage all the time are not focusing on their public duties. And that is true whether or not any illegality is involved, as in the case of the former Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who was busy selling off bank shares at the outset of last summer's war in Lebanon. The public perception - and perhaps the reality - that corruption is rampant exacts a very high toll in the long run. As Yossi Klein Halevi writes, it raises the issue in citizens' minds of whether Israeli society is one worth fighting for. That is particularly crucial in a country that places such high demands upon its citizens in terms of army service, taxes, and facing an ongoing terrorist threat. The venality of public officials from the prime minister on down is but one form of corruption. The usurpation of power by the Supreme Court, and the dominance of the Court in determining every aspect of national norms, in the name of the "enlightened public" in whose midst the justices dwell, is also a form of corruption. Not surprisingly it has been accompanied by the more run-of-the-mill forms of corruption - e.g., justices refusing to recluse themselves from cases involving close friends, even though required to do so by judicial code of ethics drafted by the former president of the Supreme Court; justices using their position on the judicial appointments committee to promote their friends, as in the case of Court President Dorit Beinisch making sure her close friend Edna Arbel was appointed to the Court by blocking the selection of other women candidates. One troubling aspect of the Court's legalization of all norms is that Israeli society has lost any concept of things that are simply "not done." Anything goes, until the Court rules it doesn't. The Talmud says that one of the defining characteristics of the Jewish people is the sense of shame. Yet it is precisely that sense of shame that too often seems absent today. The recent example of someone who threw a lavish party for himself on the eve of imprisonment for aggravated sexual harassment is but a case in point. Think Again: On believers and empiricism Michael Freund: The wave of corruption scandals that has hit Israel in recent months has been breathtaking in scope, leaving the public mystified and bewildered. After all, for a country that is facing so many challenges - both domestic and foreign - how is it that our political leaders have so much time on their hands to engage in such tawdry and shameful acts? Israelis can only scratch their heads in wonder at the series of embarrassing scandals which have erupted of late, from the allegations of rape against President Moshe Katzav, to the removal of Police Chief Moshe Karadi to the investigations being conducted against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. It is almost as if the entire senior echelon of the state has suddenly been caught with its hand in the cookie jar. There is no question that corruption poses a grave threat to the future of Israel. Of course, the danger is not as pronounced, nor as tangible, as that of a nuclear-armed Iran. But by chipping away at people's faith in the political system, and by undermining their confidence in the state and its institutions, our politicians' moral malfeasance breeds despair, disgust and demoralization among the public. It makes Israel look bad - not only abroad, but at home as well, and generates still further cynicism regarding key values such as honesty, integrity and public service. Corruption is perhaps endemic to any and all political systems - but there is no excuse for it and there is a limit to what a nation can and should be willing to tolerate. By any measure, the gang in power has crossed every red line that a civilized society can abide. It is time to throw the rascals out, and clean up the political system once and for all. Right On!: Circumvent old media-go for the blogosphere MJ Rosenberg: I don't think corruption threatens Israel's existence. I do not recall any nation on earth disappearing because it was corrupt. However, corruption (along with the occupation and the violence it produces) threatens Israel's standing as national home for the Jewish people. There are few Jews in the world who would consider aliya to a place where everyone appears to be on the take. I have spoken to Americans who did make aliya and were nostalgic to the point of depression for the days when they lived in a country where corruption (rampant though it is here in the states ) did not taint all of political life and beyond. But the biggest threat posed by corruption is what Israel will do about it. It could very easily lead Israelis to turn to some man on a white horse who will promise to end it and then institute an Israeli form of Peronism or worse. Right now, you have several prominent figures in your national life who could very easily ride to power as the anti-corruption candidate only to institute some form of fascism instead. Would that end Israel's existence? No. But, as with today's corruption, it reduces almost to zero the appeal of Israel to Jews who don't already live there and to many who do. In Washington: Why not realism? Calev Ben-David: Political corruption in various forms, both legal and illegal, has become a serious problem in this country, and should be vigorously addressed. But as bad as things have gotten we should also keep the situation in perspective, which isn't dramatically worse here than in many other Western nations. Political corruption by financial interests and organized crime elements is certainly far more severe in Italy; sexual scandals of various permutations in government circles are even more numerous and juicy in the UK; and France boasts abuses of power by officials at the highest levels every bit as bad than what we've witnessed in Israel in recent months. Yet no one would suggest that the very "existence" of these countries is in danger (Israel's is, but from the Iranian nuclear threat, not its internal problem). This is not to excuse what has been happening in Israel in the past year; we've certainly not proven ourselves to be any kind of "light unto the nations." Fortunately though, the problem of corruption has not yet metastasized to the point where it can't be remedied by a few basic steps. The most effective would be a change in the electoral system that would hold individual Knesset members directly accountable to the voters, so that scoundrels can be booted out of office irregardless of their ideological views. Snap Judgment: The little tomb around the corner Isi Leibler: The stench of corruption is all-pervasive. We are drowning in a sea of moral turpitude. Even as we abide by the principal of presumption of innocence until convicted, we are sickened by what surrounds us. Each time we think we have reached the bottom, another layer of sleaze is exposed. Our rage, contempt and disillusionment grow daily. Morale has reached an all-time low. The government, civil service, business sector and all levels of society have become degraded by leaders willing to forgo ethical norms and decency because of greed and the selfish pursuit of personal agendas. The collapse of public morality was undoubtedly a major factor contributing to the breakdown during the bungled Lebanon war. Leaders undergoing investigation or responding to commissions of enquiry seek to cover up their transgressions by blaming one another. There is indeed a danger that we could be transformed into a banana republic and that the Zionist dream will be destroyed. But at long last there is now light at the end of the tunnel. The good news is that today, riding on the crest of popular outrage, the police (who are also problematic) have become emboldened. In contrast to the past, they confront leading politicians and members of the establishment suspected of having breached the law. The flood of new scandals being exposed is undoubtedly also a byproduct of the more aggressive implementation of law enforcement. There are now genuine grounds for anticipating an end to the sleaze. Once the present dysfunctional government goes - which is only a matter of time - the next prime minister has no choice other than to make the elimination of corruption a central objective. The key to long term stability remains reform of the electoral system which will enable the public to directly choose their candidates and punish or reward their representatives in accordance with their behavior. Now make it a full-time job, with real resources Elliot Jager: What threatens to undermine Israel's political system is the sense of alienation many of us feel as a result of the stench of corruption permeating Israeli politics. The problem, for me, involves elite irresponsibility. I don't expect perfection, but I do expect those on top - in government, the bureaucracy and in our oligarchic private sector - to recognize that, as they empower and enrich themselves, they must also consider the well-being of the Israeli masses. When people say that corruption was always with us, they forget that in the old days, Israel's ruling elites balanced their narrow self-interests with a concern for the public good. I am not convinced that is the case today. To restore faith in the system, what's needed is a change in political culture. I have no clue how to achieve that. In the meantime, a small step toward rebuilding faith in the political system would be constituency representation (along district lines). That would reduce some of the alienation. Power and Politics: Breaking Begin