Corruption in Israel

The former state comptroller, Judge Micha Lindenstrauss, rightly put the fight against corruption high on the agenda of his office.

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Recent surveys by Transparency International show that corruption has become a problem in Israeli society.
Last week Transparency International published its annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI). This time Israel ranked 36 among 175 countries.
It’s hardly a comfort that the ranking improved somewhat compared with last year since the score is about the same – 61 on a scale from 0 to 100. A score under 50 indicates a serious problem. About 10 years ago Israel used to rank among the 20 countries with the lowest corruption and was comparable with US and Western European countries. No longer.
It’s true that the validity of the ranking for a certain year and country can be put into question. However, changes over time do give rise to a useful debate on underlying casual factors and actual corruption cases.
In Israel the trend is unfortunately downwards and should raise an alarm signal.
The perception index cannot easily be dismissed as subjective. The index is based on several assessments made by banks and rating institutes. We know that perception matters. If a government or public administration is perceived as corrupt, citizens will have less trust in them and foreign investors may stay away.
If we want more detailed information on the extent of corruption in different areas of the public administration, we can ask respondents in sample surveys whether they have been victims of corruption and have paid bribes. If conducted according to methodological standards, such surveys can produce useful information on corrupt practices.
Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer is a survey based on about 1,000 respondents in each country and is suitable for policy making purposes.
The most recent one was published last summer.
The survey showed that 12 percent of Israelis have paid a bribe during the past year to various public services with which they have come into contact.
Furthermore, their perception of Israeli institutions with which they don’t interact directly is often very negative, especially of political parties, religious bodies, private business sector, parliament and media.
What is striking is that institutions that we normally don’t link to corruption – such as religious bodies – are also thought to be corrupt. This perception is of course not without basis and cannot be dismissed as the invention of zealous prosecutors.
Knesset members and ministers belonging to all parties have been indicted for bribery, breach of trust, embezzlement, fraud and irregular budget transfers to affiliated party institutions. If they have been acquitted it was not because they were found innocent but because of loopholes in the legislation or a lenient interpretation of the facts by the courts.
The courts often find the behavior of politicians from all parties in appointing party members or awarding favors to their business friends inappropriate and reprehensible.
However, in Israel such behavior seems to happen in a gray zone between crime and immorality.
Integrity is a principle which is the backbone of much of the legal framework to prevent corruption, such as the laws on conflict of interest, immunity, political party funding, etc. Civil servants and politicians shouldn’t breach the trust they owe to public interest by abusing their position for personal gain or the benefit of their parties.
This obligation continues after leaving office.
The former state cvmptroller, Judge Micha Lindenstrauss, rightly put the fight against corruption high on the agenda of his office.
The state comptroller’s office plays an important role in the fight against corruption by identifying indications of fraud and irregularities in audited activities such as procurements, privatization, political appointments and party financing.
There has always been petty corruption in Israel but the trend in recent years is worrying.
Public interests risk being captured by private corporations and political parties.
The political system with coalition governments results in ministries becoming the personal fiefdoms of the ministers.
This dire situation calls for the opposite of a complacent attitude. Corruption is an illness in society and must be uprooted by a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy, based on awareness, prevention and legal enforcement. This is even more important in Israel as a country which is dependent on trade and foreign investments and wants to attract Jewish immigrants while reducing social gaps.
The author is a former official in the European Commission where he coordinated support to public administration reform in the candidate countries.