Political Peccadillos

Sometimes we Israelis are forcefully reminded that we belong to a small country, and never more so than when we measure ourselves against world heavyweights.

Sometimes we Israelis are forcefully reminded that we belong to a small country, and never more so than when we measure ourselves against world heavyweights. I am not only talking of our questionable sporting prowess of which the less said the better. Not only do we have no contender for the 1,500-meter in this year's Olympics, we have virtually no one in the offing for any event outside windsurfing. I suppose we might have concentrated our efforts on excelling in one of those sports that abound on the fringes of the Olympic program, say synchronized swimming or beach volleyball, but we do not seem to have the requisite hunger for medals. One reason might be that while we have an enviable reputation for our pharmacology, we do not seem to have succeeded in developing an undetectable performance-enhancing drug.

If you follow our media you might think that there is one area, not an Olympic event admittedly, where we lead the world. Yet, despite what we read, we are nowhere when it comes to bribery and corruption. Transparency International is the organization that monitors the level of corruption in countries around the world. If you look at the tables it publishes, a surprise awaits you. You would expect Israel to languish near the bottom, alongside Somalia in its unenviable 179th place. Yet, Israel occupies 30th place, respectably positioned in a table headed by such incorruptibles as Denmark, Finland and New Zealand.

For instance, Israel ranks well ahead of Italy, which trails in 41st place. Still, Italy is placed comfortably in the top half of the table. The imagination boggles at what must be going on in those countries that occupy more lowly places. Italy has to its credit egregious lapses that make Israel's venality pale in comparison. In Israel, there are thus far unsubstantiated charges that over a period of 13 years, envelopes stuffed with cash totaling (gulp) $150,000, were handed over as bribes.

In the corruption Olympics, that won't even get you a bronze medal.

A recent case in Italy truly deserves a place in the Bribery Hall of Fame. Though the recipient of the largesse was a mere provincial governor, he accepted bribes on a titanic scale, reportedly to buy senators. You can stuff $3,000 into a manila envelope, but try it with 15 million euros ($24 million), the sum one businessman handed the wayward governor. That the payment was in euros must have been something of a relief. Had the previous Italian currency, the lira, been the unit, the rate of about 2,000 liras to the euro would have necessitated a truck with a forklift. As it was, the cash had to be stuffed in a valise. An intriguing feature here was that, in order for the bag to appear as bulging after the delivery as it was when it arrived, the recipient stuffed it with apples. At, say, 150 euros per apple, this must surely have set a new record for the price of a Golden Delicious.

In Britain, the name Cliveden will always be associated with murky dealings, and for me, a stay some weeks ago at that handsome country house, now a hotel, brought that association to the fore. One of those mansions that are the dream of location scouts, it became the property of the National Trust, which leased it to a hotel group. It has truly beautiful grounds, open to the public, extending down to the River Thames. Prior to its cession to the National Trust, Cliveden belonged to the wealthy Astor family. The Astors, an American family, came relatively late to Cliveden, but it was under their stewardship that interesting things happened.

Fading in popular memory, but anchored in the history of the 20th century is the discreditable part that Cliveden played in the appeasement movement of the 1930s. Rather like the grand home of Lord Darlington in Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day," Cliveden was a hotbed of upper-class admirers of Adolf Hitler. Headed by the formidable Lady Astor, the "Cliveden Set," members of the Chamberlainite establishment - like the editor of The Times - met at Cliveden to plot friendship with Nazi Germany and British support for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Twenty-five years later, Cliveden became the principal site for another political scandal - what became known as the Profumo affair.

John Profumo was the secretary of state for war in the government of Harold Macmillan. He was not thought of as a rising star or indeed as any kind of star, but his name, attached to the word "affair," will live on when some of his betters will have sunk into oblivion. The other principal party to the affair was a young woman named Christine Keeler. Keeler was not a call girl. The French, whose language is accommodating for affairs of the heart, would have called her a demimondaine. In 1961, they both attended a house party at Cliveden. She was introduced to Profumo as she emerged costumeless from the swimming pool. They started a brief affair. Nothing remarkable about that, but Keeler was, at the time, conducting a parallel liaison with a senior naval attache at the Soviet embassy. This was during the Cold War and Profumo was the possessor of military secrets.

Rumors spread and intriguing details were added to the (ahem) bare facts. Who, for instance, was the "waiter" around the pool, pictured either headless or wearing nothing but a mask? The rumor mill operated with its customary efficiency, and the face behind that mask was confidently identified as that of any one of a number of prominent members of the establishment and aristocracy. Eventually the matter was raised in the House of Commons and Profumo was compelled to face his Clinton moment. Along the lines of "I did not have sex with that woman," Profumo claimed in Parliament that there was no impropriety whatever in his relationship with Keeler. This did not silence the rumors and, in September 1963, Profumo had to confess that he had lied. He resigned, causing irreparable damage to the government of which he was a member. He died recently. It is fair to record that for the remainder of his life, he occupied himself with good works.

One of the most attractive minor characters in the affair was Keeler's friend Mandy Rice-Davies. If for nothing else, she will be remembered affectionately for one of the most quotable phrases that emerged from the affair. When told that Lord Astor had denied having an affair with her, Mandy countered: "Well, he would wouldn't he?"

Mandy had an interesting after-life. She converted to Judaism and married an Israeli restaurateur. She was, for many years, a prominent feature of the Tel Aviv social scene. Her husband cashed in on her notoriety by opening restaurants and night clubs in her name. Not myself being a habitue of that world, I am not sure whether any of Mandy's, Mandy's Candies or Mandy's Singing Bamboo are extant, but they were certainly well patronized before she sadly returned to British shores.

If you imagine that Cliveden is a fun place to visit, it is. Forget your bathing suit by all means but don't, for goodness sake, leave your mask at home.