Politics: Contest under a cloud

Will Olmert’s conviction and the accompanying anti-corruption atmosphere in Israel impact the upcoming presidential election? Probably not, Israelis see "clean" politicians as lacking what it takes to get ahead.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (photo credit: YOTAM RONEN)
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
(photo credit: YOTAM RONEN)
Israelis have a love-hate relationship with political corruption.
On one hand, polls show that Israelis think all their politicians are corrupt, and they obviously want them to be cleaner.
But on the other, politicians seen as “Mr. or Mrs. Clean” are mocked, seen as lacking the elbows necessary to get ahead.
Case in point: Politicians in the Knesset were running scared following former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s sentencing Tuesday to six years in prison for his bribery conviction in the Holyland case.
One politician admitted that he does the sponga on his floors himself because he is too afraid to hire a cleaning person to do the job. He said he found legally paying a cleaner – as opposed to the widespread underthe- table practice – too complicated, and he wanted to keep his image spicand- span.
But the same week that Olmert got sentenced, you might not have heard, but there was an election in Israel.
Who did the Israeli Cattle Breeders Association choose as their new leader among 35(!) candidates who ran? None other than former MK Omri Sharon, who served five months in prison for fraud.
“He knows how to play dirty,” said Yudah, a rancher from a Lower Galilee moshav, explaining the vote. “He’s the only one who can fight for the cattle breeders and get the job done.”
Besides the Olmert sentencing, there were multiple stories over the past two weeks that put the spotlight on the potentially lethal mix of money and politics.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu oddly timed a visit to Japan with his wife and two sons, to coincide with the release of a State Comptroller’s Report criticizing his ministers for raising their number of trips abroad by 60 percent. Just last week, he had his cabinet pass allocations of NIS 50 million- NIS 70m. for a prime ministerial plane and NIS 650m.-NIS 800m. for a new residence.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid turned down a deputy minister post for his party because he wanted to show that he was not accepting political payoffs at the expense of taxpayers.
And a presidential race that was already dirty got downright slimy. The race had already led to an investigation of Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom on sexual allegations, and charges of corruption against Labor candidate Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.
Wednesday, MKs were sent a video besmirching Likud MK Reuven Rivlin, who is presumed to be the leading candidate in the race. The video accused him of “buying MKs” and put him in the pantheon of “machers,” a Yiddish word whose translation of “mover and shaker” lacks the negative connotations it has attained in Hebrew.
It could have been the kiss of death for Rivlin to be placed on a mantle with Olmert, fellow former Jerusalem mayor and Holyland convict Uri Lupoliansky, jailed former president Moshe Katsav, and former finance minister turned convicted thief from charities Avraham Hirchson.
But MKs dismissed the clip as “pathetic work by a shoddy private investigator.” They said that if that was all Rivlin’s rivals could come up with against him after his decades of public service, he was on pretty firm ground.
Hiring private investigators to look for skeletons in the closet of competitors has become routine in elections in Israel, like other countries around the world. But with all the talk of Israel’s dirty politics in the foreign press this week, the Jewish state arguably still sounds tame compared to the US.
With all due respect to Katsav’s conviction for the horrible crime of rape, there has never been a story here as explosive as the John Edwards scandal, for instance. Edwards was a former presidential candidate and likely running mate for Democratic contender Barack Obama in 2008 when it was revealed that he had cheated on his wife, Elizabeth, and fathered a child with his lover while Elizabeth was suffering from incurable cancer.
So will Olmert’s conviction and the accompanying anti-corruption atmosphere in Israel impact the presidential election that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein is expected to set a June 17 or 18 date for next week? Even Nobel laureate and presidential candidate Dan Shechtman, who stands to gain the most if the answer is affirmative, says no. He said it might have had an impact if the public picked the president, but he is chosen by MKs, who do not consider themselves corrupt.
“The public wants someone clean and apolitical,” Shechtman said recently between meetings with MKs at the parliament. “The Knesset members clearly do not. They want someone from here.”
What if the public did choose the president? The idea was one of many initiatives briefly floated by Netanyahu in an effort to get the race canceled or delayed, and prevent the election of Rivlin – who has fought with Netanyahu for years and made a mistake by insulting the prime minister’s influential wife, Sara.
Recent elections would indicate that being seen as clean does not always pay off politically. If it did, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and MK Shelly Yacimovich would still be leading large parties.
The race for president has become a contest under a cloud. But chances are it will be decided by something other than political cleanliness.