Once again the police have arrested cronies of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the eve of an election. In the 2009 elections, Lieberman was the primary suspect in a case ostensibly involving front companies and overseas tax shelters that harbored millions of magnates’ dollars. That case was eventually closed by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.
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Lieberman is not a suspect in the latest corruption case associated with his party, but if the suspicions turn out to be true, he will likely receive a serious blow – just when he’s trying to win over the political center.
The man who was first elected to the Knesset some 15 years ago in the framework of a party that was virtually a one-man show, is likely responsible for placing some of those starring in the most recent scandal in key positions. Indeed, several of Lieberman’s cronies and confidants are now suspects.
It is doubtful if any of us would have heard of Faina Kirshenbaum and Stas Misezhnikov if they hadn’t been among Liberman’s confidants. He is thought to have appointed them to Knesset and other government positions, while casting other suspects in the current scandal in powerful civil service roles.
These people ostensibly saw public resources as a nipple from which they could suck funds, by forgery and deceit, for their own political and personal needs.
The case now under review involves what appears to be a legitimate takeover of certain strongholds of power followed by criminal acts. The latter involved conditioning the funneling of public funds on the appointment of Yisrael Beiteinu people to certain posts, or on sharing the booty with such individuals. Dubious wheeler-dealers and party confidants apparently received kickbacks from some of those money transfers.
The system exposed in recent days was already demonstrated, albeit in a more moderate, not necessarily criminal way, in the initial days of Lieberman’s party in the government.
When he served as transportation minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, for example, Lieberman appointed his confidant Alex Wiznitzer director general of the government-owned Netivei Israel (formerly the National Roads Company), the interurban construction company. During Wiznitzer’s tenure at the helm, several persons close to the transportation minister benefitted from the company’s money. For instance, Netivei Israel hired the party’s legal adviser, Yoav Meni, who later starred in the case of Lieberman and the shell companies – by reserving the right to keep silent. Meni was paid millions of shekels for legal services rendered to the roads company.
Wiznitzer’s story reflects a system – in which one of "our" people is appointed as head of an organization and then he in turn sees to it that the rest of the guys get a good spot near the fleshpot.
Now under arrest, Rami Cohen, another of Lieberman’s confidants, had been serving for two years as director general of the Agriculture Ministry, under Yisrael Beiteinu's Yair Shamir. In the past Lieberman appointed Cohen CEO of another company. When Wiznitzer was in Netivei Israel, Cohen was an adviser in the company’s tender-issuing process. He, like Wiznitzer, always had a place in the corridors of power.
When Yisrael Beiteinu received the Infrastructures Ministry in Benjamin's Netanyahu’s second government, Wiznitzer was tipped as chairman of the Mekorot water company. Over a year ago Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) appointed him director general of NTA, the light rail company in Tel Aviv. Katz was warned not to make this appointment and to read the state comptroller’s report about Netivei Israel during Wiznitzer’s term. Katz ignored the warnings. Recently, the daughter of party member Sofa Landver was appointed to a managerial post at NTA.
These are but a few examples that demonstrate the way party cronies have taken over public-service bastions – a process which is one of the most obvious symptoms of corruption.
At a glance, from the outside, the system appears to have been created by a master’s hand. Among other things, Yisrael Beiteinu also controls – via the Public Security Ministry, and in the previous term, via the Justice Ministry as well – the various law enforcement apparatuses.
The case at hand shows that the system is not merely a job-producing factory for "our" people but, according to suspicions, a factory for making money to pad private pockets – or the party’s.
“Even before this case Yisrael Beiteinu was the lobbyists’ favorite party, everybody knew you could reach agreements with its members,” one source familiar with the Knesset said yesterday.
Attorney General Weinstein, who has followed the latest party investigation from its beginning, has been shocked by its findings so far. Soon, barring unexpected changes, two more corruption cases will be revealed, involving bribery in two major state institutions.
Some two years ago Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino, who was appointed by Yisrael Beiteinu Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, was criticized for failing to conduct proper investigations of various public figures and senior officials. Danino claimed that the corruption had for the most part been cleaned up. A bunch of contractors, lawyers and crime kingpins must have cracked up laughing to hear the chief of police’s observation.
Maybe another decade or two of government efforts, including doubling the units dealing with white-collar crime, will generate real deterrence and will truly clean the stables. But a politician who seriously wants to change the system is nowhere to be found. We need politicians who will dissolve the cronies’ strongholds, block the flow of money pouring into tainted hands, and restrict the lobbyists, machers and others who champion corrupt practices.
In the absence of such people, we may expect several more manifestations of rot in the coming years, and more senior figures who will hear the knock on their doors at the crack of dawn.