Analyze This: Limits of tolerance

How much alleged corruption is the public willing to put up with?

olmert angry 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert angry 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The notoriously corrupt former governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards, once joked before an election in his notoriously corrupt state that "the only way I can lose this vote is if I'm caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy!" (He wasn't, and didn't.) This country's tolerance for official malfeasance has presumably not yet fallen quite that low. But the limits of that toleration are surely being tested anew by the steady stream of disturbing developments in the corruption cases involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The latest is the extensive police operation carried out yesterday, which saw some 100 National Fraud Squad officers raid several public and private offices in search of evidence in the inquiries against the prime minister. Also over the weekend, Finance Ministry Accountant-General Yaron Zelekha, who along with State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has been Olmert's most prominent accuser, announced his impending resignation in a television interview in which he again attacked the prime minister over his alleged interference in the Bank Leumi sale. Last week, at the Sderot Conference on Social Issues, the results of a recent nation-wide survey were released showing Olmert garnered the most votes when respondents were asked who they considered Israel's most corrupt politician. Coming in a close second was disgraced former finance minister Avraham Hirchson, an Olmert protégé and confidant, whose shocking spending excesses using public funds were detailed last weekend in Yediot Aharonot. If any of the investigations against the prime minister - concerning the Bank Leumi tender; his actions regarding the Small Business Authority and Investment Center while serving as industry and trade minister; or the sale of his apartment on Jerusalem's Cremieux Street - result in an actual indictment, his time in office is at an end. But these inquiries could take a long time, and information that comes to public attention during the probes could well be politically damaging even if it does not result in the cautious Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz pressing criminal charges. Olmert's own Kadima party, and its coalition partners, especially Labor, have a vested interest in not making any moves that could lead to early elections, including replacing the prime minister. They only have this luxury, though, because the Israeli public is not taking to the streets demanding that they dump Olmert, or in fact doing much of any thing other than registering their disapproval in surveys. This begs the question then - if 56 percent of the public really believe Olmert is "the most corrupt politician in Israel," why isn't there more grass-roots pressure to replace him? Is it simply because this country has become as inured to allegations of corruption in our professional political class as the Louisiana of Edwards's day - or are there other factors at play? It would probably make a difference if the main opposition to Olmert's government were headed by a paragon of probity - but that isn't the case, at least in public perception. Likud and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu also didn't score well in the Sderot Conference poll, being voted as the second most corrupt Knesset member outside the cabinet. Yesterday's raids might also bring to mind the 1999 police searches on Netanyahu's home and office, even though he was subsequently cleared of allegations of improperly receiving gifts while serving as prime minister. However, the most likely immediate replacement for Olmert is not Netanyahu, but Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, chosen in the survey as the most honest government minister. Yet there is also no general clamoring, either within Kadima or without, for Livni to take Olmert's place, a fact she uncomfortably discovered for herself after unsuccessfully calling for the prime minister's resignation last year after the release of the interim Winograd Report. Indeed, looking at the recent history of Israeli politics, one cannot help but notice that a reputation for personal integrity earned no particular favors from either colleagues or the voting public (on both Right and Left) for such individuals as Uzi Landau, Amram Mitzna, Dan Meridor, Natan Sharansky and Benny Begin. Despite all this, it is a mistake to assume that the toleration of Olmert's own professional behavior, or the support that was given his three predecessors in office (Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Netanyahu) despite their own blemished records, is a simply a matter of cynical indifference. More reasonable is that political integrity is considered a lesser priority here because, like so many other things, it takes a back seat to concerns about the subject that consumes so much of our attention, the security situation. That is to say, a politician's capability to handle that area - and to do so in a way that a particular constituency on the Right or Left thinks effective or correct - is considered by far the most important leadership quality by Israelis, with everything else a distant second. That is what returned Barak to the leadership of the Labor Party; kept Sharon in office; and has kept Netanyahu leader of the Likud. As for Olmert, it was his (mis)handling of the Second Lebanon War that almost saw him unseated last year (and may still do so when the final Winograd Report is released), not how he oversaw the privatization of Bank Leumi. Unproven corruption allegations unrelated to the security situation are unlikely to topple any leader here - or at least, at a time when the number of successful terror attacks during the past year has dropped to the lowest level in decades, whether the prime minister deserves any credit for that or not. Unfortunately, it is not profiting from a shady home sale or appointing political cronies to government offices that generates grass-roots outrage here, nor for that matter even the prospect of live boys or dead girls found in a politician's bed. It is when a leader, corrupt or not, is judged by the public as no longer competent in handling the life and death situations that are a fact of daily life in this country - a fate that may yet await Prime Minister Olmert. 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