Analysis

This Is a Gang War: Israelis Have the Power to Fight Corruption

The current police investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have their roots in the 2011 social justice protests

A protest outside the home of energy and property magnate Yitzhak Tshuva, May 18 2013.
A social justice protest in May 2013. More are needed, with greater numbers taking to the streets. David Bachar

Democracy doesn’t boil down to going to vote every four years. Democracy is mainly what happens between election campaigns throughout the four years.

Democracy is everything that has been happening here for the last eight months: The public has made the point there are things it will accept and things it won’t.

>> EXPLAINED: Is Netanyahu in trouble? The four corruption cases surrounding Israel's prime minister >>

Speaking as a journalist who has spent the last 30 years fighting corruption, I will allow myself to begin on an optimistic note and say that Israel’s legal system knows how to handle even the most powerful of people. Danny and Nochi Dankner – chairman of Israel’s biggest bank and his cousin, one of Israel’s biggest businessmen – both went to jail. Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister, also did time, though his clout in the political, financial and media establishments were not like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s.

But I’m worried. In mid-June, hundreds of people gathered outside the home of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit in Petah Tikva, to protest against corruption. A month later they demonstrated again, protesting the protracted nature of the investigations into Netanyahu’s conduct.

It cannot be said that tens of thousands showed up. Nor were there mass protests historically when the investigations into Ariel Sharon, his sons and their cronies petered out. The people of Israel did not cry out when Kadima party leaders appointed Abraham Hirchson as finance minister because the party was OK with having a corrupt politician in charge of the public coffers.

We did not assemble en masse outside the doors of the attorney general when the corruption case against Avigdor Lieberman was closed, even though he never did explain how millions of dollars reached the bank accounts of his chauffeur and young daughter. Nor did the masses howl when the same Lieberman was named defense minister last year. They didn’t demonstrate outside the banks when Nochi Dankner and later Eliezer Fishman – another fallen tycoon – defaulted on billions in debt to the public.

The police have dubbed the investigations into Netanyahu case 1000 (allegedly receiving extravagant gifts from businessmen); case 2000 (allegedly trying to secure positive coverage in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in exchange for weakening its free rival, Israel Hayom); case 3000 (alleged corruption in the procurement of submarines from a German shipbuilder); and now case 4000 (allegations that Netanyahu helped a close friend, Shaul Elovitch, make personal gains in the telecoms business, including through the acquisition of the company Bezeq). None arose from nowhere, and all were based on the assumption that most people tacitly accept corruption, both legal and criminal alike.

It’s easy to tell ourselves it’s all down to one allegedly corrupt prime minister and that if only he were kicked out, all would be well. But Case 2000 wouldn’t have happened if the Israeli media hadn’t been serving – by omission and commission – the business barons, bankers and politicians.

Case 3000 wouldn’t have happened if the Israeli defense and procurement systems hadn’t developed a corrupt culture; if we hadn’t become inured to waste in public systems.

Case 4000 couldn’t have happened if Israeli law hadn’t permitted the existence of commercial pyramids that bribed the media with loans and ads.

It isn’t about Bibi or submarines or the attorney general – it’s about a culture and system of norms in which even some who those who want to overthrow the prime minister are involved. This is a gang war.

If we fail to look corruption in the eye, if we fail to eject corruption’s collaborators in the media and politics, we’ll be in for bitter disappointment. We may eradicate one rotten person here or there, but we will have failed to tackle the corruption itself.

Some claim we are wasting our time. But the Bezeq investigation by the Israel Securities Authority and the state comptroller’s report only happened because of the social justice protests that began in the summer of 2011, which wound up exposing the system. The social justice protests planted the seeds from which cases 1000 to 4000 germinated. The protests worked. They mattered.

The way ahead is going to be frustrating and full of obstacles, but clearly we are going in the right direction.