Editorial: Omri's lessons

Omri Sharon's rise and fall should serve as a catalyst for systemic change.

omri sharon 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
omri sharon 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The conviction and sentencing of Omri Sharon, the ailing prime minister's son and one of the most influential people in Israeli politics for the past three years, is likely to become a legal, political and cultural landmark in Israeli history. The felony for which Omri Sharon has been convicted, illegal campaign financing, along with charges of perjury and fraud to which he confessed previously in a plea bargain, should have rendered his 18-month jail sentence a foregone conclusion, especially since more than half of the sentence was suspended. Yet the sentence has caught many by surprise, itself being a testament to the fact that political malfeasance in recent years has not become only common, but also tolerated, whether in the moral or practical sense. Morally, some have accepted Omri Sharon's own excuse for his misdeeds, following the argument that the campaign-financing laws which he violated were "impossible to respect." However, this would seem to be an argument for changing the law rather than violating it, and is hardly an excuse for perjury. Practically, some here had despaired of the police and court systems' ability to confront the powers that be. Evidently, just as others here had in recent years underestimated our society's will to fight for its physical life, eulogies of Israel's will to restore moral hygiene were also premature. Considering the court conviction this week of Likud MK Naomi Blumenthal for the handing out of election bribes, as well as the decision to try former welfare minister and Shas MK Shlomo Benizri for the alleged taking of bribes, the legal system is signaling a new "zero tolerance" attitude for political corruption. All of this raises a major question difficult to answer: In recent years, has corruption in high places risen to unprecedented levels? Clearly, in the three decades since Israel's first cases of major political corruption, there has been a growing sense that "the fear of law" must be restored throughout the political system. The first serious war on corruption was waged in the second half of the 1970s, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, as a side effect of the public's loss of patience with its politicians. What began with the jailing for embezzlement of a candidate for the governorship of the Bank of Israel later proceeded to a housing minister's suicide, and in 1978 to an unprecedented jail sentence for a lawmaker, former Rehovot mayor and Likud MK Shmuel Rechtman. The next big wave came with Shas's rise to prominence and the jailing of former interior minister Arye Deri, which came coupled with other cases, most notably Benizri's. Yet there is a qualitative difference between the Shas felonies and those of Omri Sharon, since the former were done in the context of nurturing a secondary force in Israeli politics, while the latter were carried out from the heart of the ruling party, for the sake and in the course, of running the country itself. Omri Sharon's legally unacceptable actions revolve around the way he helped his father to rise to power, but his politically unacceptable actions reached beyond that, in the peculiar role he played in helping his father exercise authority. Israel has seen many second-generation politicians reach assorted positions of power, from Dan Meridor and Uzi Baram to Avraham Burg and Ehud Olmert. None of them got there by daddy ushering them, while their fathers were incumbent, from anonymity to the inner sanctums of our corridors of influence. The fact that Omri Sharon could barge into the thick of the system and overnight become a major player, despite lacking any previous claim to public distinction, was legally kosher, but politically intolerable. Omri Sharon's rise and fall should serve as a catalyst for systemic change. The newly created Tafnit Party's leader Uzi Dayan has proposed that lawmakers suspected of corruption be deprived of the right to remain silent, lose their immunity and face jail terms of at least five years if convicted. One wonders why other parties, all of which claim to be appalled by corruption, do not adopt such concrete and straightforward proposals. We hope they yet will.