Israel’s score on Transparency International’s index of perceived corruption, which was released on Tuesday, has dropped by another point. That’s not surprising. In the past five years, Israel has been deeply mired in corruption cases, most notably those involving former Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu.
The allegations against Netanyahu of bribery, fraud and breach of trust are very serious, but no less serious is his attitude toward the justice system. When a sitting prime minister demands that “the investigators be investigated” and accuses prosecutors and the police of “fixing cases,” it does major damage to Israel’s reputation and feeds the public’s sense that the country is corrupt.
The positioning of the Israeli public on two sides of a divide – the one side, those who think that Netanyahu is corrupt and, on the other, those who believe that it’s the prosecutor’s office that’s corrupt – is in of itself a reason for Israel’s decline in its score. Everyone agrees that we are corrupt, they only disagree over who is corrupt.
The criteria used in TI’s corruption rankings show that we are faring badly by nearly every measure: public figures who abuse their power and authority; elected officials who illegally use public money, including allocating funds without transparency; the use of public office for personal gain without bearing the consequences; nepotism and the appointment of cronies to public sector jobs; and violations of press freedom and civil rights and of access by civil society groups to information.
Israel doesn’t lack for other cases of corruption that demonstrates that the problem goes beyond Netanyahu. The record includes the investigation of Yisrael Beiteinu officials and the conviction of former Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov and former cabinet minister Faina Kirshenbaum, the allegations against Knesset member David Bitan, and the plea bargains struck with former Interior Minister Arye Dery and former Labor Minster Haim Katz.
All of the above shows that our system of law enforcement does, in fact, effectively address corruption. Nevertheless, the three cases against Netanyahu, his unparalleled political power and his willingness to undermine the system were a shock to the system and threatened to break it.
We witnessed that when Netanyahu appointed his ally Amir Ohana as justice minister, Ohana quickly delivered the goods, claiming that there was “a prosecution inside the prosecution” and trying to appoint an acting state prosecutor in the face of opposition from Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. Netanyahu’s use of his adviser, Natan Eshel, who in a disciplinary proceeding was found to have harassed a female staffer and was banished from the civil service, is another indication of the erosion of public standards.
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During his time in office, Netanyahu lost all shame. Dery, who spent two years in prison after being convicted of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, in 2013 became the country’s first politician to return to the cabinet after serving time. The message to the political system was that there’s life after jail, and not just life, but the honor of sitting in the cabinet.
And when that’s the message, cautious restraint weakens. Just ask former Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who intervened in a professional opinion on the fitness to stand trial of Malka Leifer, the woman accused by Australia of sexual assaulting her underage students. Mendelblit has since indicted Litzman for breach of trust and obstruction of justice. Or ask David Bitan, who was indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust on charges stemming from his tenure as deputy mayor of Rishon Letzion.
Allegations of this kind, including, of course, those against Netanyahu, should lead the accused to quit politics or at least take a time out until the conclusions of the legal proceedings against them. But in the Netanyahu years, clinging to office while waging a war against the law enforcement system, became the new norm.
The fact that Netanyahu has been put on trial despite the scored earth campaign he waged – for example, delivering a speech in front of the courtroom where his trial was taking place flanked by friendly cabinet ministers and Knesset members that depicted the attorney general and state prosecutor as the guilty parties – testifies to the inner strength of Israel’s legal system. The system withstood the pressure.
Is it sufficiently strong to withstand even more powerful pressure? You are advised not to try it at home.
And then there are the affairs that have not yet been fully clarified – such as the purchase of submarines from Germany and the stampede at Mount Meron that killed 45 people last year, both of which have led to state commissions of inquiry. The resistance of the Knesset opposition to the commissions is understandable, but it’s not clear why some members of the government also oppose them.
The new government did well to establish the state commissions. At the same time, however, it also appears no less enamored than the Netanyahu governments with appointing close associates to public service positions and neutering the gatekeepers. For the most part, that’s not criminal, but it’s a bad start. From there, the path to another round of corruption cases could be a short one.