The dead letter of the law

If accusations of wrongdoing by Sharon are true, stomachs will definitely be turning for quite a while.

Sometimes one little dinner can spoil your appetite for days afterward. If the latest accusations of wrongdoing by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are true, then stomachs will definitely be turning for quite a while. Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz has already said he would look into a Channel 10 report that Sharon, during his recent visit to New York, attended a $10,000-a-plate fundraising dinner with 15 couples organized by a supporter on behalf of his upcoming bid for leadership of the Likud Party. If true, this would be a breach of the Political Parties Law, which limits the amount of money that candidates may receive from contributors in the nine months before their party's primary election. The highest amount permitted by law today appears to be $7,800, although this figure may actually be lower. Sharon, of course, should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. This accusation may yet prove to be false and, as Vice Premier Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio, "as long as you can't prove that Sharon got even one cent of money that was illegally raised, I recommend that you be careful." Until the attorney-general decides that there is reason to believe that a crime has been committed, we will indeed "be careful." Still, the report highlights past transgressions of political funding laws not only by Sharon, but by other MKs as well. Sharon's son Omri, a fellow Likud MK, currently faces up to five years in prison, having been indicted on charges of breaking similar fundraising laws in helping his father during previous election campaigns. Toward the end of 2001, the prime minister himself returned to donors some NIS 4.7 million in that same case. The 1999 general election from which that case stemmed was in fact riddled with campaign funding violations. Millions of shekels in fines were levied against the Labor Party, Likud, and several other parties, representing all parts of the political spectrum. The laws regarding campaign financing violations, MKs have repeatedly maintained, are simply impossible to observe. If this is true, though, then the cure lies with the MKs themselves, for they have the power to change the laws to represent the reality they face. As it is, our country's legislators are flouting the very laws that they have devised. Is it any wonder, then, that so many other well-meaning laws go unenforced? There are myriad laws regulating construction standards, but they are routinely ignored often, as the case of the deadly Versailles hall collapse, with tragic consequences. A building contractor once told this newspaper, "as long as nobody ends up dead or dismembered, you can get away with anything here. The building can even burn down, nothing will happen to you." Earlier this year, major changes were made to the law regarding accessibility to public places for handicapped people. It was only necessary, though, because the law had gone seven years without being effectively enforced. According to the law, smoking in most public places is a crime. According to the experience of most citizens, however, smoking in public places is a pastime. The Israel Cancer Association has complained that most municipalities do practically nothing to see that the law is observed. Just how ingrained in the Israeli psyche is it to flout the law? Our tax laws (which are extraordinarily convoluted) are designed with the assumption that they will be widely evaded. And, of course, they are. It is a given that anyone who violates the law is responsible for his own actions. But the Knesset seems to have a pattern of passing laws that are either utopian or poorly thought through from an enforcement perspective, and which therefore become dead letters. When this happens, it undermines respect for the rule of law. If a law is widely violated, it should either be changed, or enforced. What is not acceptable is leaving a law in place even though it is widely known to be rampantly violated by lawmakers themselves, and candidates for high office. Whether or not the prime minister has violated the law in this case, we hope that the government, or the opposition, will propose a campaign finance law that can, and will, be enforced.