Fix the system, and morality will follow

What Yaron Zelekha understands, and Yitzhak Zamir doesn't, about the fight against corruption.

yaron zelekha 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yaron zelekha 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The alarming growth of corruption and the serious threat it poses to Israel's viability was the subject of two recent Haaretz Magazine cover story interviews with former Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Zamir ("We are sick," March 2) and with Accountant-General Yaron Zelekha ("A state of corruption" February 23). Justice Zamir told the magazine: "Corruption is really a kind of chronic disease, which can be terminal." He warned: "Not just democratic regimes," he explains, "empires and world powers, from Rome to the Soviet Union, have collapsed because of corruption… When any society… rots from within, the slightest push from outside is enough to topple it." While not quite as apocalyptic, Zelekha, too, considers corruption a serious threat to Israel. But the two differ on the causes and the cure. And their differences may explain why corruption has not been vanquished. Zamir thinks corruption is caused by people's failure to act morally, and by insufficient legislation and enforcement powers to deter them. Zelekha, however, understands that corruption is encouraged by a distributive political process that gives government the power to enrich people and creates incentives for corrupt behavior by politicians and bureaucrats; and that to stamp it out these incentives must be destroyed and replaced by constraints that would make corruption unprofitable and unacceptable. THUS ZAMIR complains that Yaakov Genot's proposed appointment as police commissioner, despite past accusations of corruption (of which Zamir acquitted Genot purely because of reasonable doubt) "reflects the contempt the state leadership has for the morality of society." Genot may be a good technocrat, so "the leadership does not care about the moral side." Zamir is upset that the harsh criticism that accompanied Genot's acquittal has been largely ignored - that wrongdoers are not held accountable unless they have been criminally convicted. Yet Zamir does not seem to realize that this outcome is a direct result of former chief justice Justice Aharon Barak's effort to make "everything justiciable." For if you grant the law overall dominion, other mores, especially informal ones, will necessarily atrophy. Zamir courageously breaks rank with his legal establishment colleagues, Amnon Rubinstein and Uriel Reichman, calling their attacks against Zelekha "unacceptable." Indeed, it is strange that of all our maladies in the system, it was only the comptroller's putative excesses that so outraged Rubinstein and Reichman that, atypically, they united in open protest. YET EVEN the courageous Zamir, and other like-minded pillars of the establishment who could really make a huge difference if they got involved in the struggle to liberate Israel from its corrupting system, choose to remain aloof. They either do not understand how our socioeconomic system spreads corruption, or do not care to put their reputations on the line in fighting the powerful interests that preserve it. Zelekha is special because he does understand, and because he takes great risks to fight the system. Unlike his predecessors - who did not want to alienate the oligarchy that would employ them when they moved to the private sector - Zelekha opposed, without hesitation, some very powerful interests and entrenched bureaucratic behavior that promote corruption. "We found a country on the brink of bankruptcy," Zelekha relates, "delayed [government] payments of billions, non-payment of taxes… [Public sector] financial reports that did not follow accountancy rules… most state assets unregistered… no supervision of infrastructure investment, or of salary and personnel budgets." An ambitious and disorganized government provides great opportunities for corruption. Government, Zelekha attests, "created the norm by which it is legitimate to violate commitments." The greatest purchaser in Israel, it owed suppliers billions, almost causing the bankruptcy of banks (not able to collect loans from these strapped suppliers) and creating a credit crunch that brought Israel to the brink of an Argentina-like collapse. This government "norm" for doing business was copied by the powerful, well-connected concerns that habitually win huge government contracts by underbidding their competitors and then getting the government to favorably change the terms, costing taxpayers billions in over-payments. Zelekha had to withstand brutal threats when he tried to change these practices. ELSEWHERE in the magazine, he describes a meeting between then finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Ofer brothers and their attorney Ram Caspi. They had been pushing unrealistically low bids on the government and Netanyahu simply showed them the door, telling them that they couldn't work around Zelekha by coming to him. This incident alone should shame those who accuse Netanyahu of serving the rich. Zelekha's courageous opposition to the powerful oligarchs, bureaucrats, labor bosses and their political allies, all those who corrupt both politics and economics, his understanding that corruption is not simply a "moral failure" but results from real political, social and economic practices, has made him an effective fighter against corruption, with real achievements. Justice Zamir's idealistic fight against corruption is honorable, of course but, as the recent decades prove, it does not get results.