Just in time for Pessah

The slew of recent investigations into misconduct and indictments on corruption charges is indicative of a crucial turning point in the development of this country’s political identity.

Micha Lindenstrauss speaking to Hasson 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Micha Lindenstrauss speaking to Hasson 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
One day last week as I was driving my daughter to school, we were listening to the news when she turned to me and asked, “Is government corruption all there is to report about?” It was, admittedly, an overwhelming day. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara had become the object of scrutiny by the State Comptroller’s Office for receiving possibly excessive pampering from Jewish organizations and wealthy donors; the appointment of a new director of the Prisons Service was reversed after reports he allegedly had inappropriate sexual relations with subordinates, and gave special treatment to certain inmates in exchange for favors from their outside connections; the mayor of Nazareth was indicted for bribery; and investigations began into similar charges against the mayor of Tiberias.
All this was just the fresh news, landing as it did on the existing backdrop of the bribery trial of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, the recent rape conviction of former president Moshe Katsav and impending indictments against dozens of public officials in the Jerusalem Holyland scandal.
This may be bad news or good news, depending on one’s perspective. I believe it is indicative of Israel’s current stage of growth – a crucial turning point in the development of this country’s political identity.
The glass-half-empty view would consider this a depressing portrait of our political culture, in which protektzia and payoffs are the norm, and it is harder to find a straight politician than a corrupt one. Indeed, the list of public servants who have been investigated, indicted and/or convicted takes up an inordinate amount of space on the website of the Movement for Quality Government. (Though it is worth noting that there are virtually no women on the list – perhaps another reason why we should have more women in government.) As in so many Third World countries, corruption here seems to be the rule.
ON THE other hand, the half-full view would say this is arguably the first time that corruption is being aggressively uprooted. If these practices have been the norm all along – which, by the way, is what Netanyahu argued in an election campaign a few years ago as Ariel Sharon’s son was being investigated for bribery, and he attempted to portray himself as the only clean member of the Knesset – then all these investigations are a sign of hope.
The immorality is coming out into the open, finally, and Israelis have lost their tolerance for it. Yediot Aharonot ran a headline last week: “Is it impossible for anyone to get appointed in Israel?” as if to say that these investigations are so rampant as to be overbearing. But I think the headline is out of step, pining for “good ol’ days” that should not return.
The fact that it’s difficult to get appointed is a good thing. If corruption has become an epidemic, the only way to be rid of the disease is by clearing out the entire body. If there is a sense that “nobody” can get appointed easily, we have truly gotten somewhere.
Throughout its history, the country has been torn – on the one hand, a socialist democracy, on the other, a developing country in the Middle East and to a certain extent a member of the Third World.
The kinds of protektzia and bribery currently being exposed are not much different from the offenses that brought our neighbor Hosni Mubarak to his knees.
This is certainly the most democratic state in the region, but it has never been immune to the influence of its surroundings. It has always existed between forces of Western democracy and forces endemic to Middle East culture. This tension finds expression in virtually every facet of life, from the army to driving to education to banking to language to humor. In short, this is part Western and part Wild West.
THE GOVERNMENT, too, reflects this tension, but here the ramifications are enormous and hence so is the pressure to change. In the political arena, where the war between these forces is becoming painfully apparent, this slew of indictments is a sign that one side is gaining an advantage. Political culture is shifting away from that of a banana republic to one of accountable transparency. Whether due to external pressures, economic realities, or simply because people are fed up, the tide is turning, and this is a good thing.
The government is cleaning house, just in time for Pessah, and the people may yet get some real freedom.
The writer is a researcher and consultant on Jewish education, community and gender issues.