Analysis

Four Israeli Prime Ministers, 20 Years of Corruption. Why?

The answer lies with Israel’s widespread use of political appointments: Studies show they lead to bad government, but ministers seemed determined to make the situation worse

Clockwise from right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon.
Ronen Zvulun/ Reuters, Meged Gozani, Ofer Vaknin and Moshe Milner/ GPO

Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. Since 1996, a period of more than 20 years, every Israeli prime minister has been subject to a police investigation, mostly about their connections with tycoons but sometimes about bribery. Not only prime ministers, but members of the Knesset and cabinet ministers have passed many hours in police interrogation rooms and jailhouses.

Suffice it to mention Arye Dery; MK David Bitan; almost all the members of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, including ministers, and of course the current defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose daughter and driver somehow made millions of dollars in deals in Eastern Europe without Lieberman bothering to explain to the public how this could have happened.

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There is no escaping it that something rotten has happened to Israeli politics over the last two decades, even though Israel never made the same mistake that the U.S. Supreme Court did by ending limits on campaign spending. The system that puts elected officials in the position of having to “repay” campaign contributions of the 1% doesn’t exist in Israel.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert leaving prison
Jack Guez/AFP

And yet, Israeli politicians are serial violators of the laws covering breach of trust and bribery,

It’s hard to answer the question of what causes our politicians to be so corrupt and why we can’t clean out the stables and create a healthier politics. Of course, it would be nice if the voters gave a higher priority to electing officials with clean hands rather than to the “bulldozers” who can accomplish things.

However, what we can change are the checks and balances that exist in government to immunize it from the harmful effect of corrupt politicians. In short, we need to lift the mask of hypocrisy over the governance campaign that is being led by the person who is supposed to ensuring the rule of law, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

Shaked, together with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Housing and Construction Minster Yoav Galant and MK David Amsalem, all operating with the help of Netanyahu, are leading a campaign which asserts that elected officials should be able to govern, and that means senior officials – the professionals who run the ministries – shouldn’t interfere.

In its most extreme form, the campaign portrays these professionals and the rule of law as throwing a wrench into the intricate gears of democracy. The subtext is that the soul of democracy is the people’s choice of their elected representatives, who therefore are doing the people’s will. Defying the people’s will is an affront to democratic rule, even traitorous.

If our representatives had ever studied civics they would certainly know that in a democracy it’s the people that are sovereign and as the sovereign they choose representatives to implement their policies. But democracy also establishes rules of the game that set limits on how people’s representatives can pursue those policies. The rule of law is the soul of democracy, too.

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In their forgetfulness and narcissism, our public representatives have come to think of themselves as the nation itself. Their will is sacred and anyone who defies them is a traitor even if it is done in the name of good governance and the rule of law.

The peak of this narcissism is the proposed legislation by MK Amir Ohana (Likud) that would allow ministers to appoint confidants as ministry legal advisers. The proposal has aroused opposition, naturally, because it would turn the ministry’s chief watchdogs into the minister’s trained seals.

Shaked has proposed compromise legislation that would retain the watchdog status of ministry legal advisers by barring outright political appointments. But the job of naming them would go to a search committee of five members, three of whom would be the ministry’s director general (a political appointee) and two people he or she chooses. The committee could only recommend candidates; the minister would have the final say on who gets the job.

Ohana and Shaked look on the professional staff as an obstacle to be overcome on the way to proper governance. The reality is the other way around: A strong, independent officialdom is the key to effective government.

Research by Prof. Momi Dahan of the Israel Democracy Institute shows just that. It measured the effectiveness of Israel’s government versus that of others. The research made several findings but the key one is that Israel’s government is less effective because of political appointments.

As Dahan explains, “Candidates chosen on a political basis are not necessarily the best qualified, so governments that hire senior officials based on political positions or connections show poorer government effectiveness. The employment of senior employees on a political basis is also liable to harm government effectiveness because of the damage to the organizational memory whenever power changes hands.”

Mean and clean

The counter-argument is that government works better when the politicians and officials share the same political outlook. But the evidence says otherwise. “Empirical examination shows that there is a strong negative correlation between an index of political appointments and an index of government effectiveness,” Dahan writes, using a graph to illustrate.

However, Israelis don’t need a graph to see where political appointments lead. The case of Shlomo Filber, the director general of the Communications Ministry at the heart of Case 4000 (Bezeq), ignored the professional advice of his staff and provided Bezeq with favors, allegedly at the behest of his political master, Netanyahu.