It's Not Personal

Once, when a public figure became embroiled in an investigation, he would defend himself differently: He would simply claim: "I'm not guilty."

What did Ya'akov Borovsky say when he learned of the investigation that had been opened against him, on suspicion that he promised Ariel Sharon's family relief from the probes into its affairs if he were appointed police commissioner? That people were fabricating a case against him. And what did President Moshe Katsav say when he was asked to respond to the first sexual harassment complaint against him? That his political rivals were waging a campaign of persecution against him. And what did then prime minister Sharon say when the police scrutinized his actions and those of his sons in the Greek island and Cyril Kern affairs? That he was the victim of a contemptible political libel aimed at toppling him from his position.

Once, when a public figure became embroiled in an investigation, he would defend himself differently: He would simply claim: "I'm not guilty." As long as the investigation or the subsequent legal process had not been completed, the suspect, or defendant, would fight for his good name via the accepted methods: He would proclaim his innocence and deny the accusations against him. Public figures would appear in the media and deny the allegations against them, ascribing them to police errors, or to malice on the part of the investigators, or to acts of vengeance, or to politically inspired attempts to ruin them. But none of them ever raised the claim that he was the victim of a widespread, sub rosa, collective conspiracy.

In the arena where the suspect or defendant waged his battle over public opinion, he was up against the law enforcement system - not against a malicious conspiracy of anonymous rival gangs. The public was left to decide whether it believed the suspect's denials, but it was not required to weigh them against allegations of plots by murky groups. The public knew that some politicians go astray, and when their shame was revealed, they were required to stand trial. Their crimes were seen as testifying to a money-hungry or power-mad personality, and as having been committed in order to enrich them or advance some other private interest. But such crimes were not considered part of a gang war. When people like Asher Yadlin, Aharon Abuhatzeira or Shmuel Rechtman were put on trial, they indeed tied their legal woes to their political positions, which exposed them to harassment, but their explanations carried no Mafia-like connotations.

The media spin suspects have adopted in recent years is different. It creates an impression among the public that they are the victims of a shadowy war being waged against them by anonymous gangs. Ehud Olmert said in a television interview that a "malicious and organized campaign, whose like was never seen in the past," was being waged against him. Shlomo Benizri presented the charges against him as "a wicked libel by interested parties." Salah Tarif, upon resigning as a minister, said that libels had been fabricated against him and that he was being subjected to "persecution for its own sake, by tendentious and interwined forces." And Borovsky said that the investigation against him was "a planned and orchestrated campaign" aimed at "delegitimizing the institution of the state comptroller and delegitimizing the comptroller and me personally."

Anyone who uses such arguments attests, first and foremost, to his own terminological world: His point of departure is that public life in Israel is full of organized criminal activity. He assumes that the citizenry knows this, and that his claims will not seem absurd to them.

In the past, the only cohesive group that was ever mentioned in connection with governmental corruption was "the rule of law gang" (i.e. the state prosecution, which settled accounts with public figures who abused their positions). Now, it is accepted as a given that the land is filled with gangs who send their destructive tentacles into all the centers of government. This is not mere lip service; this is a consciousness that derives from the manner in which reality is read by public figures, and apparently also by the ordinary citizen.

In "The Godfather," the man who comes to kill Don Corleone says: "It's not personal; it's strictly business." And the Mafia godfather answers: "Everything is personal." In Israel of 2007, this dialogue sounds as authentic as it did in the New York of 60 years ago that Mario Puzo described.