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The Submarine Affair: Cancer of Corruption Has Spread to Heart

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 1, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 1, 2018. Credit: Emil Salman

The submarine affair ought to keep us awake at night. Both the police and prosecutors think the evidence shows that senior defense officials and people close to the prime minister engaged in bribery.

The cancer known as bribery has now reached the patient’s — that is, Israel’s — heart and brain. It has reached the most important and sensitive parts of Israel’s defense establishment, which are involved not only in maintaining routine security but also in guaranteeing the country’s very existence.

>>Israel's submarine case: Jaw-dropping deals made without any in-depth staff work | Analysis 

The concern for national security felt by the vast majority of Israelis won’t protect us from bribery. That’s exactly why bribery is cancerous: It blinds the wise, allowing them to persuade themselves that their actions do not undermine security. They will benefit, and no one will be hurt.

It’s frightening that even after journalist Raviv Drucker’s investigative report on the affair, only a step separated the decision to launch an examination from a decision to do nothing. It’s frightening that two years after that examination began, important aspects of the affair still have not been investigated: the decision to purchase the submarines and missile boats and Israel’s acquiescence, through its prime minister, to Germany’s selling Egypt advanced submarines. All of these circumvented normal government channels and violated proper procedure. It turns out Israel cannot be trusted to adhere to proper conduct even on the most important and sensitive issues.

It’s essential to set clear protocols and sanctions for violating them. The postmortem reviews, aimed at preventing a recurrence of such behavior, hasn’t yet begun.

The Israel Democracy Institute, where I am a senior fellow, has proposed setting up a national task force on preventing bribery. It would be comprised of experts from fields like behavioral economics, crime prevention, auditing and control. Its job would be to examine the structural, systemic and procedural aspects of bribery cases and recommend ways to close loopholes and build “fences” to prevent corrupt behavior.

It’s not at all self-evident that this task should wait for the end of the criminal investigation, especially given how long complex investigations take. Instead, it could take place simultaneously, without the task force’s work disrupting the investigation.

The danger that what happened was not an isolated incident, but rather evidence of systemic rot, is evident. Thus the job of scrutinizing the system as a whole cannot wait. And it’s critical that the task force members come from outside the system; otherwise, there’s a risk that corrupt people will even penetrate the anti-corruption mechanisms.

It’s frightening to think that corrupt people have managed to confuse the public into thinking that if something wasn’t criminal, it wasn’t wrong at all; that what can’t be proven at the level necessary for criminal conviction — a very high threshold that isn’t required in any other context — never happened; and that whatever isn’t prohibited by law is of no public importance.

The idea that it’s possible to eradicate corruption solely through criminal law is fundamentally wrong. The main battlefield against governmental corruption is the public arena.

The public is entitled to judge its leaders on the basis of a much lower level of certainty than is required in criminal trials. Just as we wouldn’t trust our personal finances to someone even suspected of being a thief, even if it’s not proven, we shouldn’t entrust the keys to our future to someone who may have known that people were earning private payoffs from military procurement deals. And if he didn’t know, then he should have known.

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From the standpoint of public norms, giving up a valuable security asset without going through the proper procedures is unforgivable. From the standpoint of public norms, the fact that the prime minister has consistently — and not just in this case — surrounded himself with corrupt individuals in the most influential posts cannot but say something about him. Anyone can make one or two bad appointments, but the collection of corrupt people around Benjamin Netanyahu cannot be accidental.

This case also shines a spotlight on the government’s proposal to politicize the role of ministry legal advisors. This proposal not only destroys the rule of law from a constitutional and administrative standpoint, but also removes a barrier to governmental corruption. To support this proposal is to support governmental corruption. Behind it one can glimpse the ugly faces of corrupt ministers and of ministers who want to join the corruption party.

And if we’re discussing strategies for preventing corruption, it’s worth paying attention to Tuesday’s mayoral run-off election in Jerusalem. One candidate, Moshe Leon, has no connection to the city and no base of support in the city council. He owes his first-round success to two righteous men, Arye Dery and Avigdor Lieberman, and will be beholden to them.

His election, even if he himself is clean as a whistle, is an invitation to corrupt the capital. To support him is to support that happening. Every resident of Jerusalem must prevent this.

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