Does Israel Really Have a Corruption Problem?

Imagine I’m describing a country you’ve never heard of: I tell you that every prime minister of this country in the last 20 years has at some point been under criminal investigation. Defense ministers were investigated and put on trial for corruption. Other top government officials have likewise been under suspicion.

What would you think about this country? You would probably think it is corrupt and that something in it needed to be fixed.

This country is not imaginary. It’s my country: Israel. And although I do not think it is especially corrupt, something is surely in need of fixing. The question is what.

Twice so far this month, investigators have questioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. We don’t yet know the full extent of the suspicions against him, but we know some: He is said to have enjoyed expensive presents from rich people whom he calls “friends.” He reportedly had a conversation with a newspaper publisher in which they discussed limiting a rival paper’s circulation in exchange for less harsh coverage of the prime minister.

A bodyguard closing the gates to the official residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Jan. 2, blocking the view as the press awaited the arrival of police investigators looking into gifts Mr. Netanyahu received. Credit Gali Tibbon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A bodyguard closing the gates to the official residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Jan. 2, blocking the view as the press awaited the arrival of police investigators looking into gifts Mr. Netanyahu received. Credit Gali Tibbon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This wasn’t Mr. Netanyahu’s first encounter with the police. From 1997 to 1999, during his first spell as prime minister, he was investigated several times for a variety of reasons, from a kickback scheme to influence peddling, and he has been investigated occasionally ever since. His successor, Ehud Barak, was also under investigation on several occasions on allegations of illegal campaign financing, bribery charges, money laundering and more. Ariel Sharon, Mr. Barak’s successor, came under investigation for corruption in 2005. Ehud Olmert, Mr. Sharon’s successor, wasn’t just investigated for bribery and obstruction of justice, he was tried and jailed.

These investigations hardly change public opinion in Israel. Mr. Sharon was widely supported even while his investigation made daily headlines. Mr. Barak and Mr. Olmert’s popularity suffered for entirely different reasons (Mr. Barak’s failure to hold his governing coalition together; Mr. Olmert’s execution of the 2006 war in Lebanon). Mr. Netanyahu, too, remains reasonably popular: Surveys indicate that if elections were held today, he would get another term.

Does this mean we Israelis don’t care about corruption and graft? Not exactly.

Surely, no one here wants a corrupt government. On the other hand, no one believes that the police and investigators should constantly harass members of the government over misdemeanors. And everybody knows that politicians often tend to be, well, not the most honorable people. Still, we need them, and we need to let them do their jobs.

We also live in Israel, a country of corner-cutting and informal practicality. Strict rules are not for us. This makes our bureaucracy much better than bureaucracies in other well-organized Western countries (yes, the Interior Ministry officer will see you even if you forgot the proper documentation; no, the clerk will not refuse your request just because the problem you describe doesn’t match the one he was expecting to deal with). It also often seems petty, expecting our leaders to behave better than we do ourselves.

Interrogating the prime minister over some cigars or bottles of Champagne he was given? Few Israelis would say no to such gifts. Employing dozens of police officers and lawyers to figure out whether a disreputable agreement between a newspaper publisher and a prime minister is illegal? Few Israelis have illusions about either their press or their prime minister. We know that there are deals. Greediness is not a great quality, but a pinch of it does not justify the political mayhem that the recent investigations have been causing.

Investigations and, even more so, the reports by the news media about these investigations often fail to convince the public that they are not politically motivated. Many Israeli dignitaries accept gifts, and supporters of Mr. Netanyahu’s party feel as if those received by the prime minister are getting undue attention. Similarly, Mr. Netanyahu did not invent unhealthy relations between politicians and the news media, and these voters protest that his wheeling-and-dealing is unfairly being singled out.

This is usually the case during such investigations: The public’s response is often highly partisan, as if opposition to corruption is a party platform. Opposition voters celebrate a victory when Mr. Netanyahu is under investigation — even though previous such investigations ended with nothing. Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters enjoy short-lived revenge when the leader of the opposition is named in a separate corruption investigation — but in doing so they undermine their theories about the conspiracies against Mr. Netanyahu.

So what is Israel’s problem? Is it the corrupt ways of its leaders, or the uncompromising stiffness of its law enforcement agencies? Is it the dismissiveness with which politicians treat the rule of law, or a tendency of investigators to lose perspective as they hunt for prey?

In an era demanding binary answers, the answers might seem disappointing. The solution to Israel’s alleged corruption problem cannot be “leave the politicians alone” (Mr. Olmert did end up in jail for bribery), but it cannot be “put all those crooks in jail,” either (Mr. Netanyahu has never even been charged).

It must be something more nuanced: “Get a sense of proportion.” That’s a difficult principle to follow as Israel investigates its leaders — and a seemingly even more difficult principle to follow as Israel discusses and debates these never-ending investigations. But that’s the real way to fix this country.

Shmuel Rosner is the political editor at The Jewish Journal, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a contributing opinion writer.

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