There seems to be no segment of our elite left that’s been untouched by allegations of corruption these days. Among politicians, we have a former prime minister convicted and sentenced (Ehud Olmert), and a presidential hopeful (Benjamin Ben-Eliezer). Among our religious leaders, the police are recommending former chief rabbi (Yona Metzger) be indicted for accepting bribes and another rabbi (Yoshiyahu Pinto) keeps popping up in corruption probes involving police, politicians and businessmen in Israel and the United States. Then, there’s a former chief of staff (Gabi Ashkenazi) and other army men being questioned in the Harpaz affair. And finally we a bevy of union leaders (led by Alon Hassan) and business executives (Avraham Nanikashvili , Jacky Ben Zaken) facing police questioning in the Ashdod Port probe.
And that’s just the active file. The history of high-level malfeasance in Israel is long and seems to be growing at a distressingly rapid pace. It was a small pleasure to read Rubi Rivlin’s capital declaration this week and find that after three decades in politics he’s living in a modest apartment, drives an ordinary car and earns 30,000 shekels ($8,670) a month before taxes (as president, he’ll be getting a raise).
But, is Israeli really such a den of official iniquity? It’s harder to answer that question than you might think. Transparency International, the global anti-corruption organization, found in a survey taken more than a year ago, before the latest upsurge of malfeasance, that 30% of Israelis thought corruption had grown worse over the previous two years – but 38% said it was about the same. Surveys like TI’s are problematic, however, because they generally measure how much corruption people believe exists, which isn’t the same thing as corruption itself. Headlines alone aren’t a good measure, although they no doubt feed the public’s perception that corruption in high places is rampant. They tend to be driven by how much competing news there is on the agenda, how sexy the allegations are and who is involved. Investigations and convictions may say more about the effectiveness of the justice system than about actual corruption.
More corrupt than Italy?
A more worrying statistic from TI’s survey is that 12% of all Israeli s polled said they had paid a bribe for one of eight services, such as land registration or to a police officer, over the previous 12 months. In the previous TI survey in 2010, only 4% of Israelis had said they had paid a bribe. That is a good indicator as any of real corruption. Israel’s 12% is less than half the 27% globally who said they had paid a bribe, but it is quite high for a developed economy. Only 5% of Italians, whose country is not famous for clean government, said they had paid one. Interestingly, that is lower than the 7% of Americans and Swiss who reported making a payoff.
Let’s assume corruption is growing worse. If so, how worried should we be?
We shouldn’t be indifferent to rising crime of any sort, but the fact of the matter is it is difficult to make the case that corruption is eating away at our economy or our democratic values.
Economists like to point to pervasive corruption in places like Africa to explain poor economic performance, but the connection between good government and growth isn’t universal. The booming economies of Asia are as corrupt if not more corrupt than Israel’s, at least by TI’s measurements. China is ranked 88th of 107 countries surveyed and South Korea is 55th. India and Taiwan are both 36th, the same as Israel. China and India are developing economies, which could arguably be growing despite pervasive corruption simply because there is much untapped business opportunity, but Taiwan and South Korea certainly are not.
Nor does Israel seem to be the worse for wear for its corruption. Maybe that’s because we are an open, export-oriented economy, where buying favors from local politicians isn’t that important to the biggest and most important businesses. In the domestically oriented sectors of our economy, business efficiency and innovation are lagging, but it’s hard to point the finger at corruption. Indeed, in an era when everyone says the dangerous relationship between money and politics is eating away at democracy and fair play, the government has undertaken an unprecedented crackdown on monopolies and tycoons. It’s wrong to say that a once pure and innocent Israel has been tainted by the growing power of capitalists.
Likewise, those who claim that the excessive power of government is behind corruption will have a hard time proving their case. Nearly all the countries that come out cleanest in the TI survey are all big-government places like Scandinavia and Northern Europe. What separates them from the rest is a culture of good government, whether it is big or small.
In Israel, we seem to have adapted Mediterranean mores that are cynical about government and the abuse of power, therefore more tolerant of high- and low-level corruption. That may be changing and, indeed, that kind of change is the only thing that stands a chance of rooting out the problem. Investigations and indictments are lengthy and expensive and, in any case, catch only a small number of violators. Capital declarations, like the ones that most of the presidential hopefuls made and other transparency measures, also will only have limited effect because it is easy enough to hide money.
Dismantling Israel’s state religious establishment would address a big part of the corruption problem in one fell swoop. It brings together all the ingredients that so easily cook up crime into one big ugly brew — the Haredi culture of reliance on government handouts; the absence of administrative norms in favor of under-the-counter deals; and the political power state religion has conferred on rabbis who enjoy immense charismatic and spiritual authority among their followers. Just compare the rabbinical court system – a mess of inefficiency, nepotism, petty politics and corruption – with the honesty and probity of the regular judicial system.
But the real solution is for the public to reject the faintest whiff of corruption. Too often we have politicians that enjoy careers despite their being perpetually one step ahead of the law, like Olmert, or Avigdor Lieberman, or even one step behind it, like Aryeh Deri, who is back at the helm of the Shas party after serving time, as if nothing happened. Voters are also too willing to accept claims by the accused that investigations by the police or state prosecution are motivated by political, religious or ethnic persecution. We’ve heard that line from Deri and Avigdor Lieberman in the past, to name a few, and from Hassan now. But what we need to be looking at is the charge sheet.
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