Grumpy old man: The eyes have it in the land of the ‘kombina’

In a country known for eating its young, you have to keep working the room for the next deal.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert leaves Tel Aviv District Court May 13, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert leaves Tel Aviv District Court May 13, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A little over four years ago, I wrote a lengthy piece for a magazine about the as-yet-unfolding Holyland Affair, which at the time seemed to be a mere afterthought in the long legal campaign against Ehud Olmert.
In researching the article, I spoke to a lot of people from a lot of different fields.
One was Moshe Amirav, who, with a doctorate in political geography from the London School of Economics, had been central to urban planning efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a member of the Jerusalem City Council.
“Holyland is not unique,” Amirav told me. “If you have connections, especially in politics, you can accomplish things. You can also get away with things. There are a lot of gray areas. Even when the law says something specific, there are many aspects that are open to interpretation.”
This was not new to me. Neither was what he said next, although perhaps because he was the only person who mentioned it in connection with the issue at hand, it is what stayed with me.
“We are an immigrant society,” he stated.
“An immigrant society is typified by landsmanship, which in this case means informal connections. They may have taken us out of the Diaspora, but they haven’t taken the Diaspora out of us.”
WE ALL know the importance of connections.
Those of us who have lived here long enough surely remember when protektzia was the only way to get anything done without wasting days at a time roaming the labyrinthine halls of state bureaucracy. Usually, it was a case where a brother-in-law’s next-door neighbor worked over at the motor vehicle department and you needed a special form to renew your license. So you’d go to the guy’s office, sign it, thank him for his 90 seconds and be done with it.
Today, an entire industry has sprung up around something similar. If you listen to the radio, surely you’ve heard the name Livnat Poran. She and others who once worked for government or quasi-governmental bodies like the Tax Authority or the National Insurance Institute will, for a fee or a percentage, secure for you a lump sum or monthly payment you have coming if, say, you’ve been injured or suffer from a chronic condition. It’s not so much that they know the right people. They know the ropes.
If Holyland and the numerous other influence- peddling affairs that have dogged Olmert all these years have taught us anything, it’s that there are people who see themselves as a little bit brother-in-law and a little bit Livnat Poran. It goes on wherever there’s red tape, which is to say everywhere.
But here in the land of the kombina, where so much gets done by making informal deals, it seems to have taken on a life of its own.
The macher (from the Yiddish “to make”) is someone who makes things happen, a big shot who knows bigger shots or at least can connect you with them. It could be for a round of golf and a keepsake photo to impress others, but more likely it’s to bend a rule that’s standing between you and some sort of gain. Unlike your brotherin- law, though, the macher will expect his cut. And unlike Livnat Poran, he does not advertise. So if you’re looking for one, you have to keep your eyes open. And if there’s one thing you notice about Ehud Olmert, it’s that his are never still.
Back in the days when he was junior enough of a pol to come to a young radio journalist’s office for a little air time, he would never lock your gaze. You could be in a bare room with nothing to distract him, not a picture on the wall or a window to look out of, and his eyes would be darting around like pinballs. You were like, hey, I’m over here, but those eyes were always roaming, It helped to remind yourself that he seemed to do this with everyone. In large venues, if he looked at someone who had reached out to shake his hand or make small talk, it was only for a second. The rest of the time, even while still in the well-wisher’s grasp, those eyes were working the room, swiveling in every direction, sometimes along with the rest of the head, as if seeking out someone more important to be seen with or, perhaps, someone who might need a favor. It was as if he was always on the make for the next kombina.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go to a news website and click on footage of any of his court appearances: Even when leaning in to consult with someone important, like a lawyer or an adviser, Olmert’s hand goes up to cover his mouth, but those eyes are everywhere else.
To be fair, this is a trait of many politicians, for whom connections and deals are oxygen. And to be even fairer, I never saw Olmert take a shekel from anyone. But I’m at a disadvantage. I’ve lived in Jerusalem for the past third of a century, back to the days when his law office (run by Shula Zaken) seemed to be involved in every kombina hatched in the capital, no matter how shady-sounding. You could hardly get through a news item in any of the local papers without reading about him in one nefarious-sounding way or another.
The ambition was certainly there. As a pol, Olmert eventually graduated to cabinet rank. But it was always a second- or third-tier position, and you would be hard-pressed to find a Jerusalemite who didn’t view his decision to run for mayor as anything more than a way to shed his image as a midlevel political hack and gain a springboard to bigger and better things. By the time Ariel Sharon was lying in a coma, Olmert had pulled off the near-impossible, leaving many of his homies to shrug their shoulders in wonder.
I know I did.
RIGHT NOW, one might be forgiven for thinking this country is run by poorly behaved people. There’s an ex-prime minister headed to prison for taking bribes, and others, including ex-cabinet ministers and prominent members of Knesset, who have been jailed for similar crimes.
For heaven’s sake, an ex-cabinet minister did time for smuggling drugs, and there’s an ex-president still doing time for rape. It’s gotten so bad that Wikipedia has a lengthy page called “List of Israeli public officials convicted of crimes or misdemeanors,” almost all from the past decade and a half.
I’d like to believe it’s just a matter of timing, a chronological confluence of bad apples. But this is a country known for eating its young, where stern national responsibilities such as military service and high taxes clash with an economy that little by little is being gobbled up by a few tycoons and wealthy families, leaving the rest of us to scramble for the crumbs and make it to the end of the month without becoming mired in an overdraft.
This, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that Moshe Katsav could not keep his pants zipped, but it explains why a lot of eyes are always working the room. It’s why so many of us have done a little work under the table, or knowingly extended a garden wall a little beyond what’s permitted by zoning laws, or found a sympathetic doctor willing to help us get out of a little reserve duty.
I guess we’re okay with this, as long as it’s confined to the little things. But it’s something else entirely when someone has access to real leverage, whether it’s financial or political or both. Which is why in the land of the kombina, I’ll keep Moshe Amirav’s words in mind – and continue to watch the eyes.