Analysis: Hirchson the Grey

So how was Wednesday in the money markets? Just fine, and thanks for asking. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange was up on all major indices and the shekel was going strong against the dollar and euro. In any other country in which the finance minister had just been questioned by the police under caution, over serious suspicions of fraud, the stock exchange would have taken at least a temporary nosedive. Here not even a blip was registered. Economists, of course, explain this in the strength of the Israeli public sector, which has already withstood multiple corruption revelations this year remarkably well, not to mention a war. But there is another reason to the indifference and that is the identity of this particular disgraced minister, or rather the lack of an identity. It's still early days in what promises to be a protracted investigation, but even jaded observers are shocked, not so much by the severity of the suspicions, which are indeed weighty, as by the fact that it's Avraham Hirchson who got himself into such deep trouble. There have been a number of reports over the last few months of financial shenanigans involving Hirchson's close circle, but few believed that the finance minister was directly linked. There's just something so unthreatening about the man. Finance ministers are usually high-profile, colorful political creatures, but Hirchson is grey on grey. You would have to go back at least a quarter of a century to find one as lackluster. His stature has been diminished even more over the last year, as Hirchson is serving under Ehud Olmert, perhaps the most financially-oriented prime minister in the state's history. Indeed Olmert appointed him to the position because he knew that his loyalist Hirchson would not surprise him with any new and radical initiatives. He's been regarded as a competent and safe pair of hands to take care of the booming economy, but no one is under any illusions that, unlike in most previous governments, in this one it's anyone but the prime minister calling the shots on fiscal policy. The most striking feature on Hirchson's rather unremarkable CV is that he spent 22 years as the secretary-general of the "National Youth," one of the smallest and most obscure of Israel's youth movements. Very few people have ever heard of the "National Youth" but growing old as the head of a youth movement says something about a person. Neither was his parliamentary career very interesting: He spent a year in the Knesset in the early Eighties and was back again in the 1992 elections, spent a decade on the backbenches and in 2003 became chairman of the Finance Committee. His only previous cabinet experience was a brief year as tourism minister at the tail-end of Sharon's administration. The impression everyone had of Hirchson was of a basically quiet and mild-mannered hack, seemingly of good intentions, with one major achievement - the founding of the "March of the Living," which yearly brings thousands of Jewish youths to the extermination camp sites in Poland in commemoration of the Holocaust. Of course, the swirl of corruption is now so pervasive that, in the eyes of much of the public, most every politician now is a thieving crook until proven otherwise. Yet ever since the allegations against Hirchson have come out, politicians and journalists have been saying that he just doesn't seem the type. Some have even begun thinking up excuses for him: Perhaps the missing money was meant to help out his wayward son? Maybe the $250,000 found by the Polish police on him a decade ago was intended to grease some local palms for a good cause? Many seem to eager to cast Hirchson as the fall guy. But now the details are beginning to emerge, suggesting an altogether more sinister pattern. A string of public organizations and NGOs connected to Hirchson are now under investigation (the Israeli branch of March of the Living isn't; it was disbanded four years ago for financial mismanagement), with anything between NIS 5-10 million allegedly gone missing; apparently the signs were there for years. If so, some tough questions should be asked of Hirchson's colleagues in Likud and now Kadima. How is it that they - and especially the prime minister who put him in charge of the public purse strings - were unaware of any hints of wrong-doing? But tough questions must be asked, too, of the press, so eager to chase any scent of corruption, which missed such a prime case. They allowed Hirchson to use his grey camouflage and just fade into the background.