Behind the Lines: Hand over fist?

Netanyahu should realize the dangers of throwing stones from inside million-dollar glass houses.

binyamin netanyahu 88 29 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
binyamin netanyahu 88 29
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel is in danger, and not only because of the threats emanating from the Iranian bomb or Palestinian demography. According to Binyamin Netanyahu, "corruption has become a cancer" and there is the risk that "once the country sinks into the swamp of serious corruption, it's very hard to get out of it." He ought to know. In an interview with Ha'aretz last week, the former finance minister claimed he was offered a bribe while in government, though he refused to say by whom. Netanyahu's revelations caused a slight stir, prompting one Knesset member to demand that the attorney general investigate why Netanyahu didn't immediately report the incident to the police. More pressing matters, and the long Shavuot weekend that followed, however, pushed the issue to the back burner. But shouldn't a dire diagnosis made by an ex-prime minister, foreign and finance minister - a trained economist to boot - be treated a bit more seriously? When a man of Netanyahu's experience and expertise says that corruption is endemic to our political culture, we should all sit up and pay attention. Two of this week's main events seem to lend some credence to Netanyahu's claims. There are grave suspicions that the series of power outages that wreaked national havoc and caused at least one fatality, weren't accidental. The finger has been pointed at the powerful Israel Electric Corporation's union, anxious to safeguard its monopoly on the national light-switch in the face of government plans to break up and privatize the company. Accusations were made, and an investigatory committee has already been set up, but it doesn't seem as if anyone's really eager to catch the real culprits. More than one politician has learned over the years that you mess with the power workers' union at your peril. The major event of this week was the final vote on the long overdue 2006 state budget. In the last chapter of this long unfolding saga, the government took out a last-minute insurance policy, guaranteeing its majority by buying off three opposition parties: Israel Beiteinu, United Torah Judaism and NRP-National Union. The right-wing parties abstained from voting in return for the government's funneling of NIS 600 million of the taxpayers' money toward organizations and causes affiliated with their constituencies. Could there be more blatant corruption than this? Here we seem to have two clear cases of public assets being squandered in favor of special interest groups. But corruption is in the eye of the beholder. One could answer that the IEC workers - if, indeed, they are behind the brown-outs - are merely taking a radical form of industrial action by withholding their labor from the public, protesting against a perceived threat to their wages and conditions. But how do their actions differ from those of the workers who went on strike at Ben-Gurion airport on Tuesday (particularly when surrounding the latter, there were also claims of corruption, with the head of the union accused of nepotism)? Neither is buying off opposition within the Knesset so clear cut a case. Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson defended the move by saying that the fact that the representatives of the religious and Russian communities are in the opposition doesn't mean that they don't deserve the money. Still, he never explained why the pay-out was linked to the abstention of those representatives. NETANYAHU - AT least in his interview - referred to another, specific form of corruption. He spoke of "the senior politician or senior official who is giving out assets to the wealthy who are paying money for this, a lot of money… in envelopes. Bribery transferred to bank accounts in Vaduz and the Cayman Islands." There are two main problems with Netanyahu's allegations. First, it is impossible to determine the veracity of his claims or gauge the extent of the problem he describes. As in the case of his own alleged brush with bribery, he's not supplying us with any details. Second, there are many who accuse Netanyahu himself - who pushed through a radical plan of privatization during his three years as finance minister - of being the major force behind this development. The fact that all his actions were "above board," makes little difference to those who believe that the wholesale privatizationof national assets will ultimately ruin Israeli society. Opponents of Netanyahu's "piggish capitalism" see him as the main corrupting influence and blame his policies for transforming the local economy into what they view as a smaller-scale version of Russia in the late 1990s, where a small group of oligarchs snapped up the country's resources and infrastructure at bargain-basement prices. Netanyahu, on the other hand, places the blame with the journalists and the law enforcement agencies who, he says, are aware of the widespread corruption but are not mobilizing to root it out, because they are anxious to protect the politicians who support withdrawal from the West Bank. It's almost impossible to answer these accusations. Despite the fact that the media have been successful at revealing corruption in high places - often leading to criminal investigations and even convictions of ministers and businessmen - the public can't truly know what has been left unrevealed. SO HOW corrupt are we, really? Every few months, a study is published by one or another international organization placing Israel high on the world corruption list. The rankings are far from conclusive. They are also subjective, based mainly on surveys that measure public sentiment. But the fact that Israelis believe their country is more corrupt than others means nothing. Furthermore, there is no objective method for comparing levels of corruption in different countries. Laws , the powers and priorities of police forces, and most importantly public sensibilities, differ radically from nation to nation, even among western democracies. What is classified as deep corruption in one place is standard and accepted procedure in another. Like every other Israeli journalist, I've heard countless rumors of breathtaking bribery of our most senior politicians and officials, but have seldom seen any real proof. Although Netanyahu blames the press for giving those politicians certain immunity for political motives, the reality is that the proof required to accuse a politician of financial wrongdoing is usually prohibitive. His claim also sidesteps the fact that the media has recently unearthed corruption even among those who subscribe to its supposedly leftist agenda. These include MK Shimon Peres, who is presently under fire for allegedly engaging in illegal fundraising. I asked a senior official in an urban planning agency - a man with extensive experience in the private sector, as well - what he thought of the allegations. According to Netanyahu, the planning agencies are major hubs of corruption, "Netanyahu has done a terrible thing," he responded, "... everyone now is going to be thinking that each and every businessman, politician and planning official is part of a racket." The official insisted that the current level of scrutiny in the planning processes is rigorous and that most attempts at bribery and corruption get rooted out, either at committee level or by the state comptroller and the press. This week, for example, the attorney general ordered a criminal investigation, after the comptroller revealed that Sinai Gilboa, the deputy mayor of Petah Tikva, had received millions in consultancy fees from the "Dan" cooperative. This, while acting as a member of the local planning council that awarded "Dan" valuable building rights. The findings originally appeared on Channel 2's investigative program, Uvda. The official was less sure of happenings in the energy industry because that industry (which Netanyahu indicated as another source of corruption) is less regulated than the planning agencies. Rumors of huge sums of money changing hands, in connection with the billion-dollar natural gas deals have been circulating for the last few years. Yossi Meiman, owner of one of the companies vying for the tender to supply gas to Israel's largest power station, was investigated last year, along with his employee, ex-Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit. The two were possibly tied to the leak of the tape that brought down National Infrastructures Minister Yossi Paritzky. Nothing came of the investigation, which, given the industry it centered on, was not too extraordinary. Widespread bribery has always been part and parcel of the world energy trade and is in no way unique or endemic to Israel. THE MOST serious ongoing corruption investigation by far is that of the Zeiler Committee, into the conduct of the police in the case of the Parinyan crime family. It is already clear that there was gross incompetence on the part of the Southern district in following up on suspicions that a police officer was involved in a series of killings. It is also known that Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi - at the time district commander - ignored warnings of a connection between the Parinyans and Assistant Commander Yoram Levy, when appointing him head of the district's investigations division. The committee has already issued warning letters to Karadi and a long line of senior police officers, but there is a question as to whether this is simply a case of incompetence or if much more powerful forces were at play. The key might be in the yet-to-be-heard testimony of an unnamed police officer, who last week received immunity from the committee. Many believe that "Mister X" will finally reveal the reason for Karadi's initial insistence on Levy's appointment, and perhaps even shed light on several rumors: on dealings between the Parinyans and Omri Sharon, the former prime minister's son, strenuously denied by Ariel Sharon himself; on a possible connection between this case and the surprise appointment of Karadi himself, promoted above half a dozen candidates senior to him; and perhaps on the most disturbing question of all - whether the whole case is actually connected to one of the murkiest crime organizations in the country. It is a murderous gang that has stolen thousands of tons of valuable sand in the south over the past decade, eroding the coastal region and making tens of millions in black money . This theft is considered Israel's most prominent unsolved crime, and remains so largely because that the gang is routinely warned in advance of police patrols and ambushes. If any of these rumors are confirmed, it will mean that corruption in Israel has reached new heights. But, that's a huge "if." WHICH BRINGS us back to Netanyahu. The presence of corruption in Israeli political and business life is unquestionable. It's been around for decades, since the merry days of Mapai and the crooked contractors who grafted millions while building shoddy fortifications on the Bar-Lev Line, to Netanyahu's administration, during which the only minister ever to be convicted of accepting bribes, Aryeh Deri, was calling the shots. But is Netanyahu really trying to root out that corruption with his vague allegations? Or is he merely trying to mobilize public sentiment against his political rivals? He's naming no names, but leaving no doubt as to whom is being accused. Anything to do with planning and energy in the last government, Netanyahu said, "was run out of the Prime Minister's Office. I wasn't allowed any real access." In other words, Sharon and his clique were the ultimate sources of corruption. Continuing with his subtle-as-a-jackhammer fingerpointing, Netanyahu cautioned that "if a politician who wasn't born into a rich family becomes rich during his political career, that has to raise questions." Watch out, Ehud Olmert, with your lucrative real-estate portfolio. To followers of Netanyahu's career, these verbal tactics sound all too familiar. On the eve of the 1993 Likud primaries, Netanyahu went on television, confessed to having an affair and claimed that he received threats to reveal an incriminating video tape from "a senior figure in the Likud, surrounded by criminals." Again, no names were mentioned, but everyone understood that he was referring to his arch-opponent, David Levy. The police investigated the claims but found no tape. Eventually, Netanyahu asked Levy's forgiveness. As for himself, Netanyahu claims that he never made serious money while in politics. "Don't forget that when I ended my job as prime minister, my only worry was how I would feed my family… I had very little." So how does he explain that only three days after losing the 1999 elections, he was already shopping for villas in Jerusalem's up-scale German Colony. Netanyahu should be smart enough to realize the dangers of throwing stones from inside million-dollar glass houses. Netanyahu is by no means the only politician trying to use the corruption card for his own benefit. In a speech he gave last month, Olmert said, "The time has come to use the words 'organized crime' and I am saying to the police: 'Have no fear, you have my full backing.' We have no tolerance when it comes to fighting crime, be it by someone connected to power or not." This begs the question, of course, of what new information the prime minister suddenly received that put him on a red alert, and of why the police would have expected anything less than his full backing. Perhaps the battle against corruption is too serious to be left in the hands of politicians.