Analysis: Why Israelis like their politicians a bit corrupt

Why do corruption allegations unify Likudniks rather than repel them? And why do such charges not have enough of an impact on the general public to sway an election?

Ariel Sharon (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ariel Sharon
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The news implicating the prime minister and Likud leader on corruption charges came from a media outlet that was actively trying to bring him down.
His political rival in Labor accused the prime minister of "behaving like the Godfather, with the state and the government being run by the family."
But the prime minister responded by attacking the media outlet, the charges against him boomeranged against his opponent, and the incumbent leader won a landslide victory with more than twice as many votes as his challenger.
It sounds like a recap Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to see of the current race, but it actually summed up the election in 2003 between then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and his ultra-clean opponent, Amram Mitzna.
A report in Ha'aretz revealed that South African businessman Cyril Kern had transferred $1.5 million to Sharon's son Gilad to cover his father's debts from his 1999 campaign for Likud leader. The scandal rocked the election and newspapers around the world reported that Sharon was on his way out and that Mitzna - and Middle East peace - were on the way.
But Sharon recovered quickly, the source who leaked the report was revealed and disgraced, and he won 38 seats to Mitzna's 19.
More than a dozen years later, comptroller Joseph Shapira's report on how Netanyahu and his wife spent taxpayer funds could have caused serious damage. But at least according to the weekend's polls, the hit was not too bad.
The Likud fell two seats behind the Zionist Union, and undecided voters said they were less likely to vote for the prime minister's party. But among those who voted Likud in the 2013 election, 30% said Shapira’s findings made it more likely they would cast ballots for the party on March 17 and only 14% said it was now less likely.
Why do corruption allegations unify Likudniks rather than repel them? And why do such charges not have enough of an impact on the general public to sway an election?
Part of it has to do with Israel's history. Since the state was founded, the poorer Sephardi underclass resented Ashenazi elites who initially controlled the government, the IDF, academia, and the media.
The demographics in each of those institutions have gradually changed, but the resentment is still there. That elite is seen as doing everything possible to prevent the Likud from winning elections.
There also is a certain respect in Israel for those who know how to work the system, who have elbows, who know how to get their way against all odds. Israelis like their politicians corrupt, but not too corrupt.
When former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who crossed the line to too corrupt, was forced to step down in 2008, Tzipi Livni was given an opportunity to form a government. But she failed twice, because she was afraid of getting her hands dirty.
Polls taken by Likud have found that to this day Israelis still resent Livni. Her unfavorability rating is higher than that of every party leader in Israel. They even tested US president Barack Obama, and she is viewed more unfavorably than him, too.
The poll found that the knowledge that a vote for Zionist Union may mean two years of Livni as prime minister turns away six times as many undecided voters as it draws. That is why Netanyahu has tried to run his campaign against her (and Obama).
A final reason why the comptroller's report did not harm Netanyahu as much as it could have was that the bottle recycling story was leaked before. Israelis saw that report as so frivolous that when the comptroller released a serious report, it was not taken too seriously.
But the next report the comptroller will release will be on the housing crisis. That report could harm Netanyahu among his natural base that has been especially impacted by the crisis. Therefore, recovering from that report will be much harder.