A ban too far

When everyone knows that everyone is bending the rules, it encourages a culture of law bending.

lindenstaruss 298 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
lindenstaruss 298 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Every prime minister elected over the past decade has come under either administrative or criminal investigation regarding campaign contributions for both national elections and party leadership primaries. Ehud Barak escaped indictment by the skin of his teeth, Ariel Sharon by virtue of the disengagement, and then suffering a permanently disabling stroke. While this says a lot about our political leadership (none of it good), it's also telling us that there is something wrong with the law. Israel's political contribution laws are still firmly rooted in the austere socialist pioneering era. Mapai, which never really had the support of the private sector (government and Histadrut-owned commercial enterprises don't count), deliberately passed draconian contribution laws, to strictly limit the influence of the private sector. Until the Seventies, the laws were still workable, because politics was a relatively cheap and unsophisticated game. The need for expensive media and PR campaigns didn't exist, since politicians got votes by working crowds, not cameras. Spin referred to cricket pitches and baseball pitchers. Major social, political and economic developments in the late '70s and '80s set the campaign laws firmly down the path of obsolescence. Israel ceased being a de-facto one party (Labor) state. Party leaders were no longer chosen in smoky rooms, but in internal elections, first in central committees, subsequently in open primaries. The communications and media industries began to come of age. By the early '90s these developments had fully matured, totally transforming the nature of political campaigns. Talk shows replaced mass rallies, PR town hall meetings. Would-be candidates for leader of one of the two major parties which formed whatever government was voted into office found themselves having to spend millions of shekels in prolonged campaigns leading up to the primaries. To get a realistic place on a party's list of candidates for the Knesset now costs at least NIS 100,000. THE AMOUNTS candidates are legally allowed to raise have not been updated for many years, and are paltry compared to the realistic requirements for running a competent and professional campaign. This is a really bad situation, as it forces candidates to knowingly break the spirit of the law, even if they are able to keep (barely) within its letter by the dubious virtues of legal trickery practiced by high-priced and high-powered attorneys. This situation has no doubt significantly contributed to the increasingly lax attitudes towards corruption. When everyone knows that everyone is bending the rules, it creates and foments an atmosphere that encourages and facilitates a culture of law bending. Since the law can only bear so much bending, this eventually leads to greater tolerance for outright law breaking. This means that unless we as a society want to restrict politics to those who are independently wealthy, contributions are fated to remain a fact of life. While contributions can create very problematic "money-power" links, which can easily lead to corruption and conflict of interests by elected officials, it is still preferable to having a comprehensive ban on donations, which would either drive all but the wealthy out of political life, or criminalize almost every elected official. This does not mean that our campaign financing laws should not be significantly reformed. These laws are totally outmoded, and are therefore unable to effectively govern our political culture. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss may be going too far by suggesting the Knesset ban almost all forms of political contributions, as such a step would only drive the contributions even further underground, and away from public scrutiny. MY OWN approach would be to provide Israel with reasonable and effective campaign financing laws that will be both viable and enforceable.
  • The amounts of money that can be donated should be updated to reflect our current economic realities. A ceiling of NIS 10,000 NIS per individual, and NIS 100,000 per corporation /organization would seem to be a reasonable amount.
  • Ceilings regarding donations for candidates running for a place in the Knesset, but not party leadership, or local government elections would be half (NIS 5,000 and NIS 50,000 respectively).
  • Overseas donations would be the equivalent in dollars.
  • A new law requiring candidates to publish every contribution received should be enacted. Candidates would be required to submit a periodical report to the state comptroller and the press, detailing every donation they have received, and what if any kinds of business or personal connections, or potential conflict of interests exist between them, their families and the donors. All "soft money" would be considered as if it was a donation, and regulated as such. Assiduous public scrutiny is ultimately one of the best, if not the best, means of enforcement.
  • The state comptroller, who should also be the ex-officio chairman of the National Elections Committee, would have the authority to issue public warnings, and even disqualify any candidate failing to adhere to this law. The current laws curtailing news coverage during campaigns should be thrown out; they are an anachronistic throwback to times best left behind.
  • At the same time limits on advertising should be enacted, reducing the need for money and donations. It would also reduce the spin and humbug in political discourse, improving its level. Banning all donations is a step too far, and would probably be counterproductive, muddying instead of clearing our already very murky political waters. The writer is a veteran journalist.