A man gets up in the morning, opens the newspaper and it feels like the end of the world. "Finance minister suspected of stealing millions," reports one paper, in a banner headline splashed across the whole front page. "Finance minister stopped at Polish airport with suitcase containing quarter of a million dollars in cash," shrieks another. Haaretz writes about the "last days of Pompeii." The electronic media cover the "new heights of public corruption in Israel in microscopic detail."
The police suspect that Abraham Hirchson pocketed millions of shekels from the non-profit associations he headed. It is unclear to what extent the statute of limitations applies to these alleged offenses, if at all, but it is hard to imagine this man continuing to be our finance minister.
The past and the present are kind of mixed up here, but when it boils down, a crook is a crook, and a crook has no business being in public office, not even for a day.
The public not only expects its leaders to be capable of handling the country's complex problems. It expects them to be honest. Channel 10's political commentator was right when he said that the internal rot in this country has never run so deep.
We've never seen the likes of it, from the tragicomedy of Esterina Tartman, who lied about her college degrees, and whose vote as a minister could have decided for or against going to war; to the president of the state, indicted for sexual harassment, rape and indecent assault, which led the Knesset to suspend him from office. Not to mention the justice minister, who was hauled into court because of a kiss, found guilty of indecent behavior and forced to resign. You'd think one of the perks of high office in this country includes a packet of Viagra.
Not a week goes by without some new corruption scandal involving elected leaders or civil servants. Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, was in court this week on charges of appointing political cronies when he was minister of the environment. The investigation of the vote contractors who worked for Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz during the election primaries is underway, along with the inquiry of widespread corruption in the Tax Authority.
The prime minister himself has a cloud of suspicion hanging over his head, as the police investigate various charges of misconduct and the state comptroller waits around the bend with a sledgehammer. And looming over all this is the dark shadow of the Winograd Committee, with its probe of the government's handling of the Second Lebanon War.
Menachem Begin brokered peace with Egypt and bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, but got himself entangled in the first Lebanon war with a government that one of his ministers, Aharon Uzan, compared to shakshuka - Middle Eastern-style scrambled eggs. It got to the point where he uttered those immortal lines "I can't go on," after which he announced his resignation and shut himself up at home for the rest of his life.
Watching the way things are going today, the public is also on the brink of declaring: We can't go on with a government like this. Usually, of course, the public doesn't quit. The key to cleaning the stables may be in the hands of the Winograd Committee. If it concludes that Olmert and Peretz are responsible for the failure of the war, they will have to go. And then, either a new government will be formed or early elections will be held.
The trouble with the Olmert administration is that the government is also on suspension. Seats are being safeguarded at the price of political paralysis. Olmert would do himself a favor if he stopped being passive, following the model of Yitzhak Shamir, the champion of inaction.
At a time like this, when he is in the midst of an assortment of investigations, Olmert should be taking risks, like an American president in the last half of his second term of office. He should be politically hyperactive. He should be evacuating outposts, getting around the Hamas problem by throwing bait to Abu Mazen, publicly declaring that he supports the Saudi initiative. He should be racing around in a mad frenzy of action. He should be turning the words he said at the Kadima convention about "having a job to do" into deeds.
Many Israeli citizens are calling Israel a corrupt country and howling about the bumbling incompetence of the government. But however black things seem, there is a tiny glimmer of hope: Corruption and filth are not being swept under the carpet anymore.
On the contrary, things that infuriate us and things that go wrong are being exposed. Those who are responsible will be held to account for their actions.
With or without elections, we will get to the point where Israel's leaders wake up in the morning and carry out their duties with a sense of mission, rather than devoting themselves to their own political survival, no matter what the cost.?
A government on suspension is a painful but passing stage on the way to a purged and purified political system.
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