Politics: Awash with anti-corruption

Is Israel cleaning house this Pessah, or will it sweep revulsion under the rug when elections blow in?

avraham hirschson 88  (photo credit: )
avraham hirschson 88
(photo credit: )
It happens every year.The ritual spring-cleaning ahead of Pessah always yields to the ritual messing that takes place when children look for the afikoman during the Seder. It has also become a ritual in this country that the public gets riled up about corruption, demands a national housecleaning and then forgets about it when the time comes to vote. Who remembers that two elections ago, then Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna compared incumbent prime minister Ariel Sharon to the godfather before losing to him by half a million votes? In last year's election, former IDF deputy chief of General Staff Uzi Dayan's Tafnit Party ran on an anti-corruption ticket and got only 18,753 votes - less than a third of that needed to get into the Knesset and less than half the votes won by the Green Leaf Party that ran on a platform of legalizing marijuana. But maybe things are different now. Perhaps the public's threshold of tolerance for corruption has been crossed by the many scandals affecting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee head Tzahi Hanegbi, etc. That seems to be the case when the most popular politicians in Kadima and Labor are the purportedly super-clean Tzipi Livni and Ami Ayalon. The anti-corruption wave could become a tsunami later this month when the Winograd Committee releases its report, and a mass demonstration organized by Dayan will likely call on Olmert to resign. THERE ARE three ways of explaining what is going on. There's Olmert's version that the press and other enemies are conspiring to bring him down. There's the possibility that the politicians are genuinely more corrupt than they ever were before. Or maybe the public's standards have indeed risen and misdeeds that were accepted and downplayed in the past will no longer be tolerated. Chances are that all three of these explanations are correct. Olmert has complained of finding a "cauldron of poison" on his doorstep every morning in the Hebrew press. Indeed, mainstream media outlets are competing to find the next scandal that could threaten his political future. Many of the scandals affecting Olmert began on the News First Class Web site of muckraker Yoav Yitzhak. While scandals Yitzhak uncovered have been ignored in the past, now everything he reports is immediately followed up on the front pages of the papers. Kadima MK Yoel Hason, one of Olmert's chief defenders, says the attempt to skewer the prime minister has gone way too far. "It has reached the point that people are blind and deaf to anything good that Olmert does," he says. "The prime minister has been prejudged with standards that are too strict, and it's neither fair nor healthy for the political system." Hason disagrees with the notion that today's politicians are any more corrupt than their predecessors were. He says the standards for cleanliness have risen too high if a politician has to be afraid of corruption charges for buying a coffeemaker for his Knesset office. "In the 1950s and '60s, corruption affected every aspect of the way the state was run, but the public was still enamored with its leaders and there were no standards at all," Hason says. "Now the standards relating to corruption have risen dramatically to the point of absurdity. It's not always good that politicians have to be so super-careful that they are afraid of getting important things done." RESPONDING TO charges from Olmert's associates that he is part of a political conspiracy against the prime minister, Yitzhak said that when it comes to corruption and politicians accused of crimes, he has always been colorblind. Yitzhak said times have changed since the early years of the state, but he believes the mainstream press is still not doing nearly enough to fulfill its job of being a watchdog over the government. He said the public's appetite for stories of corruption has forced the mainstream media to reluctantly deal with the issue. "In the '50s, '60s and '70s, politicians accused of corruption committed suicide or left, but now the press gives them immunity," Yitzhak said. "Olmert is still coddled like an etrog in some of the mainstream media. If the press had taken my investigations seriously before the election, Olmert would never have been prime minister and there would not have been a Second Lebanon War." For Dayan, one of the lessons of the war was that corruption and military failures go hand in hand in the depreciation in the values and morality of the national leadership. "People tolerated corruption for years, because they considered it a crime without victims that was bad but not so terrible," he said. "But, especially after the war, the public has started to realize that there is a connection between political corruption, immoral behavior and the neglect of the home front. The leadership was seen as lacking direction and not taking responsibility." Dayan said the difference between the politicians of the 1950s and those of today is that the current leaders do little to cover up their misdeeds. Hanegbi even took out an ad in a Likud magazine to boast his many political appointments. "Politicians used to be corrupt to help their party, but today's corruption is done more efficiently and shamelessly, and it's intended to line their personal pockets," Dayan said. "The problem got so bad that it prevented any agenda from being carried out. That's why we need to restore fear in the politicians, most of whom are not corrupt, but they don't exactly go out of their way to fight corruption either." Dayan is confident that a genuine change is taking place in the public that could prevent corrupt people from getting elected in the future. Among the positive changes, Dayan cited that politicians are now receiving jail time if convicted on corruption charges, they no longer can get away with abusing their right to remain silent during trial and the Knesset passed a cooling-off period to prevent top security officials from going straight into politics. He said the main change that still has to take place is to require every party to elect its MKs democratically and force politicians to pass the test of the public. Dayan said that if that happens and the current anti-corruption atmosphere continues, truly clean leadership will ultimately follow. "People still won't vote on corruption," Dayan said. "The security issue will still be the most dominant, because people want to make sure that the leaders who couldn't defeat Hizbullah can stop the Iranian bomb. But the voters will reward clean people, and I'm optimistic that we will eventually start electing people who not only have a head and heart but also clean hands."