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When Ariel Sharon was first elected prime minister, some people wondered how the public would be able to ignore the stain of deception that adhered to him over the years and that had received the court's stamp of approval. Only a minority wondered; in February 2001, the majority of voters preferred Sharon over Ehud Barak. Their choice reflected a value judgment: The personal integrity of the country's leader was less important to them than the other characteristics they associated with him.

Sharon was perceived as a strong and experienced politician who would know how to restore to Israel the armor of security that was shed during the Al-Aqsa intifada. It was as if the voters had said: It is important to us that the person at the helm of the country have security skills that can be trusted; but his personal integrity is not important to us. On the contrary, we should be led by an individual who knows how to deceive others and be flexible in his attitude to the truth. Only with attributes like these can one lead the nation to safe haven.

History will judge Sharon with regard to his success as prime minister. Meanwhile, it can be asserted that during his time in office, government corruption reached new heights. He and his two sons were involved in doubtful affairs that were of interest to the police and the State Prosecutor's Office. Among none of his predecessors was the office of prime minister transformed so crudely into a tool for promoting his family's economic interests; and until that time, no prime minister's family had been involved in affairs of state in such a deep, exploitative and cynical way. A longing for Sharon, which comes to the fore now, a year after he fell ill, overlooks his contribution to the declining morality of government.

Those under investigation today enjoy the presumption of innocence, not only for formal and known reasons, but also because it is unclear to what extent the conduct attributed to them is criminal, and because experience has shown that it is better to take the version and actions of the police with a grain of salt. And yet, the window the latest investigation opens onto the goings-on at the Tax Authority reveals a reality that took its inspiration from the conduct of the Likud governments in recent years.

In psychology the term "projection" refers to the tendency of people to ascribe to others the characteristics they find in themselves. Children assume that a game they love is also a favorite of their friends; adults believe that people whose lifestyles are like their own feel as they do. This thought pattern also applies when an individual is aware of his weaknesses; he or she ascribes them to others: If I am a tax evader, I tend to believe that my neighbor is one; if I evade reserve service, I am sure my friend does the same.

This kind of thinking is even more powerfully expressed when it comes to public figures and leaders: When people have the desire to cheat or misappropriate, they assuage their conscience with the assumption that their leaders also cheat and misappropriate. When this belief receives tangible support by the very launching of a police probe, the individual obtains legitimization to act corruptly.

In recent years, Israel's citizens have seen one prime minister involved in minor acts of corruption to spare himself small financial outlays; another prime minister who allowed his sons to sacrifice themselves to cover for his alleged criminal conduct; and a third who came into office surrounded by investigations and suspicions stemming from his conduct on a twisted path in which the boundary was allegedly crossed between personal benefit and his public position. Such conduct by its leaders gives ordinary citizens a green light to imitate them.

The atmosphere of one hand washing the other that continues to unfold in the Tax Authority suits the image of the Likud in recent years: the Likud churned by Omri Sharon; the Likud in which political wheeling and dealing was done in broad daylight and in cash; the Likud that rejected from its ranks the incorrupt Benny Begin; the Likud (in its form as Kadima) whose two last prime ministers refused to include Dan Meridor in their cabinets because his insistence on following the rules of propriety made him a troublemaker. The conclusion can only be that the moral code of the country's leaders exerts a tremendous impact on the conduct of its citizens.