How to Become a Rich Israeli Politician

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I am curious to know how politicians make all their big money. I would like to be there the moment they first encounter this big money − and I mean really big. I would like to have seen the face of Ehud Barak, from Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, when they telephoned him from the bank and informed him that his balance had reached seven figures. In dollars. I would like to know how Arik Sharon, from Kfar Malal, suddenly bought a giant ranch in the Negev. I would like to know how Avigdor Lieberman became a millionaire.

It is not self-evident that a member of Knesset, with his or her salary of NIS 40,000 or so a month, will end up as a millionaire within a few years. I wonder how the process goes, the one that begins with someone being appointed the party’s branch secretary in some neighborhood, and ends with that same person becoming a minister who stands before a judge and swears he has no idea where all the millions in his account came from. Did someone mention bribery? Heaven forbid! All of this is kosher. Here, Mr. Investigator: Here are the papers. The accountants confirmed and the lawyers signed. All of it is kosher, as the court confirmed, but the certainty that whoever enters politics poor will come out of it rich is scary.

A young politician wants to make money. He is just starting out. He sweeps the party branch office, he buys cookies for the members out of his own pocket and soft drinks for meetings. He is elected branch secretary. And suddenly, without prelude, Wikipedia reports he is on the board of directors of a major economic corporation. What? A member of the board? Him? And of some big corporation, no less?

Just a moment − didn’t he study international relations or something like that? It’s a mystery. The entry in Wikipedia, which the public figure scrutinized carefully, skips over that chapter of his life . Pity, for that is after all the point at which he first encountered the big money. Perhaps it isn’t really his yet, but just you wait, that stage will come.

Now, when he is close to the pie, comes the “attachment” phase. The young board member attaches himself to a veteran politician. This is a gamble. Lieberman, for example, gambled on Bibi, and Silvan Shalom on Yitzhak Moda’i. Maybe there is someone wandering around out there today brokenhearted who gambled on Danny Ayalon. We’ll leave him be, though.

The one who made it is more interesting: the one who renders small services to the boss, buys flowers for his wife and screens his calls. In return, he is appointed bureau chief. That’s it, now he’s inside. Wikipedia skips over an explanation, but suddenly it emerges that he is also the proprietor of a “consulting firm” and is “involved in financial activity.” Back in the little neighborhood ‏(or far-flung town‏), they are impressed. Say, isn’t that the son of the grocery store owner ‏(or of that guy from the bank‏), they ask − and can’t believe that this fella, the one with the pupils that don’t move and the eyelids that don’t blink, has come so far.

He is in business. But one must ask, what has he got to do with business? It’s not that we don’t suspect. Oh boy, you’d better believe we suspect, imagining encrypted e-mails and circular deals, but eventually it ends with a fat envelope that someone puts, as though accidentally, on his secretary’s desk. For someone to put an envelope on your secretary’s desk, you have to be someone who is worth that envelope. You must be in a position of power.

Political old hands boast of positions of power. From there, they hand out their goodies. The sweetest goody of all is their connections. Connections, they explain to the young politician, are power. Connections, they say, grow stronger with the years. The more the years go by, the more confidants, sycophants and wheeler-dealers crowd around them. The president of the United States is restricted to eight years in office, but these guys stick around forever. The title “public servant” amuses them. They don’t know “the public.” They haven’t been ordinary citizens in decades. They can’t remember if they ever took the bus or dialed a phone with their own fingers. They toss a few crumbs of power the young politician’s way. By now, they are careful not to turn their backs on him.

In the end, the young politician is elected to the Knesset. He heads a junior committee and then a senior one, he is a junior minister and then a senior one. He accepts with a blank expression the sticky, wet, loud kisses planted on him at party branches. Off to the side, with their arms crossed, stand the billionaires. They study him with narrowed eyes. They are the wolf that picks out the fattest sheep in the flock. They take a gamble, too. After all, he is easy to bet on, he is easily enticed. Now the money simply comes pouring down on him. How much do they give him? What does he give them in return? There is no way to know.

From here on, everything is vague; mysterious names float about in the haze. Schlaff, Gutnick − and above all, Adelson. At the end of a clandestine and complex process, the politician is transformed from a salaried employee to a capital-holder. He is rich. He can even allocate a bit of time to dealing with the fate of the state. The “business matters” he hands over to his daughters, who immediately repay, themselves and him, with salaries in the millions.

When everything appears to be going well, however, up pops an indictment. Some jealous wretch snitched. Pain in the ass. Someone who, instead of attaching himself to a future prime minister, attached himself to someone who ended up as head of the national association of dancers.

Upon receiving the charge sheet, the top-flight lawyer informs the judge that he is “studying the material.” That process, so he says, will take him six or seven years. Later, on television, the lawyer complains about “the excessive adjudication” and “delay of justice” he would not wish on his worst enemy.

The trial does indeed drag on for years. The judges change, the witnesses die and the prosecutors resign. The envelopes with money are forgotten, the bribery dissolves and the Greek island sinks into the sea. The successful politician is acquitted unanimously. Now he is a successful politician. What is a successful politician? It is one who has made a lot of money and still hasn’t been caught.

Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.

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