Integrity starts on local level, but not in Israel

Citizens have a right to know about what is going on in the public administration and to influence decisions.

ANTI-CORRUPTION PROTESTERS in Tel Aviv in December. (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli newspapers abound with reports about corruption cases and political appointments involving elected officials in the local administration.
The recent police interrogations of coalition chairman MK David Bitan on suspicions of bribery, money laundering, fraud and breach of trust has put again the issues of corruption and integrity in Israel’s some 270 municipalities and local councils in the limelight. What’s wrong there? Bitan is not the first case of a wellknown politician who has been accused of corruption after starting his political career in a municipality.
The most notorious case is former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was convicted for his role in the Holyland scandal in Jerusalem, which he became entangled in when he served as mayor for 10 years before entering national politics.
Bitan and Olmert, both lawyers by profession, have in common that they started their careers in local politics.
Bitan became a member of Rishon Lezion’s city council already in 1988 and went on to become deputy mayor of the city from 2005 to 2015, when he was elected to Knesset. In Rishon Lezion he also headed the local planning and building committee for some years. This is the most powerful local committee, which handles public tenders and decides on city planning and building permits. It is also vulnerable to irregularities, fraud and corruption.
There are obviously clear links between governance on local and central levels. In the absence of adequate controls, decentralization of functions from central to regional levels increases the risk of irregularities because of the increase in the number of persons involved in managing public affairs and public funding. The risk is presumably higher in countries that are perceived as having a corrupt central administration, as seems worryingly to be the case in Israel.
According to the NGO Transparency International, Israel has a corruption index which ranks it at 28th place among 176 countries, lagging behind Western Europe. Israel has improved its score somewhat in recent years, but may find itself again on slippery slope if the ongoing investigations against Bitan and other politicians, including the prime minister, result in prosecutions and convictions.
This is not to be taken lightheartedly, as some journalists in Haaretz have been doing, claiming that Israelis do not care if their politicians are a bit corrupt and are bending corners – we all do it according to them. There seems to often be an inclination to underestimate the extent of corruption and its dangers for the Israeli economy, society and moral fiber, already undermined by the ongoing occupation.
Following the protest demonstrations in Tel Aviv and to some extent in other cities hardly anyone can claim today that the public is indifferent to corruption. The public wants a clean government on both the local and national levels, that it can trust to act objectively and impartially in the public interest without any conflicts of interest and without any irregular links to private business interests.
“Neither leftist nor rightist but just,” as the slogan in the demonstrations says.
Some risk factors are more apparent on the local level. Prolonged possession of power by the same people or party – which of course also happens on central level but is common in many municipalities – is a clear risk factor. This can lead to erosion in the separation between private interests and public authority.
Internal controls are also less likely to be in place in municipal administrations with scarce resources. The absence of effective external supervision – in Israel the task of the ministries of interior and justice – aggravates the consequences on the local level of loopholes in anti-corruption legislation.
Good governance should start “at home” close to the citizens – i.e. on the local level – since a growing number of public tasks have been entrusted to local government. If politicians have committed irregularities in their local posts, because of the absence of controls and the lack of an integrity framework, without being discovered or sanctioned, there is a likelihood that they will continue to act in the same way later on in their careers.
To start with, elected officials should meet basic criteria for serving their mandates. They should be known for their honesty and integrity, which as a minimum means that they should have paid their taxes and municipal fees before being elected. Surprisingly this is far from the case, although it is against the law not to do so. The state comptroller reported in 2016 that 139 elected officials in 74 municipalities had not paid their debts in time, in total NIS 11.4 million.
In many countries appointed and elected officials or at least the most high-ranking among them are also required to submit asset declarations at the beginning and end of their mandate periods. This rule has a clear preventive character. Typical shortcomings in enforcing the rule are lack of a registry of elected officials, asset declarations not being submitted in time, and non-control of the declarations by a local committee or external central body.
In Israel such a rule has been in place since 1993 but is limited to mayors and their deputies and is poorly enforced according to the state comptroller.
Its 2016 report showed that 12% of the mayors and 39% of the deputies had not submitted any declarations at the beginning of their mandate periods. No sanctions were taken against these officials. The ministries of justice and interior failed in solving their inter-ministerial disputes on enforcing a code of ethics for local administration.
Citizens have a right to know about what is going on in the public administration and to influence decisions, especially those which concern them directly on the local level. In Israel this democratic right was enshrined in law in 1998 (Law on freedom of information) and covers all public authorities, including the municipalities.
The rules, however, are cumbersome and the public has to pay a fee for the information. The reaction is often that a document, though no state secret, is not public.
In 50% of cases the municipalities do not reply to requests for information according to a survey by the Justice Ministry. The state comptroller reported in an audit report that even elected members of the municipal councils have difficulties in getting replies to their questions and requests for documents, although they have a right to access them and in fact need to do so to be able to supervise the management of the municipality.
Municipalities are obliged to publish annual financial and environmental reports but not for example protocols from meetings and internal audit reports. The state comptroller is of the opinion that the municipalities should publish as much as possible on their websites to increase public trust.
This should include codes of conduct, organization, local by-laws and rules, budgets and actual spending, urban planning, allocation of grants to local civil society organizations, tenders and contracts.
It often requires inside information to identify irregularities and fraud in the municipalities. For this reason whistle blowers should be protected by law against dismissal or retaliation by the employer when they disclose information on wrongdoing without following formal channels. In Israel the basic law on the state comptroller gives some protection to whistle blowers, especially if they are internal auditors, but the protection needs to be updated and reinforced in a separate law.
When police investigations, often dragging on for years and depending on the decisions of the state attorney in his double role as judicial adviser to the government and head of the prosecution authority, finally catch up with the perpetrators, the damage to the municipality and the state is already done. It is necessary to address the loopholes in the legislation and fight corruption by adopting a holistic approach based on awareness raising, prevention and enforcement.
To sum up, Israel has a legal framework for fighting corruption but it has loopholes and is not effectively enforced partly due to inter-ministerial disputes. In particular, Israel would need to review measures on how to enhance transparency and accountability in the municipalities to reduce the risk of corruption. Otherwise we will continue to suffer from corrupt politicians who continue to make a national career until the police investigations finally catch up with them.
The author is a former European Commission official.