Labor's Court

Nefarious political behavior, sometimes outrightly criminal, which in the past was confined to the party's backyard, is now being committed in the open.

With all the commotion generated last week by Benjamin Netanyahu's challenge to Ariel Sharon's leadership of the Likud, the shameful performance of the Labor Party, a political movement with pretensions of replacing the present government, faded into the background. The report of retired judge Sarah Frisch on the extent of fraud in the Labor Party membership drive has been swallowed up in the pandemonium surrounding disengagement and failed to receive the proper amount of public attention.

The judge found that half of the approximately 90,000 new members should be disqualified because of significant faults in the enrollment process; about 10,000 forms have been sent to the police on suspicion of forged signatures. In absolute numbers, this means that out of the 130,000 veteran and new members on the party rolls, about 45,000 have been sifted out. This is a huge number that demonstrates the extent to which corruption and disdain for proper management have become the norm in this party.

The problem is the public's complacent indifference to the phenomenon - as if that's the way politics work and there is no choice but to accept this.

It is the extent of the corruption that makes Judge Frisch's findings exceptional. Nefarious political behavior, sometimes outrightly criminal, which in the past was confined to the party's backyard, is now being committed in the open. Those competing for the leadership of the party who are involved in the scandal did not hesitate to enroll supporters using forgery, vote-buying, vote-contracting and political pressure, without concern for the moment their disgrace would become public.

This ugly political game became so blatantly and boldly cynical that those who cooked up this stew did not even bother to really hide what they were doing. They were so sure of themselves and the norms that guided them that they lost the ability to differentiate between helping and harming. They never imagined that they were laying a booby trap for themselves - that the moment would come when they would be required to account for their actions, and the benefits they sought would turn into losses.

The wholesale use of illegitimate means to swell the ranks of the Labor Party was based on the impression held by some candidates for leadership about the dos and don'ts of Israeli politics. In their world, forgery, vote-buying and fictitious signatures are all fair game at the party fair.

Some of the candidates for party head are certainly uttering through clenched teeth - a la former U.S. vice-president Spiro Agnew, whose acceptance of the gift of an expensive watch was in retrospect considered bribery - "The bastards changed the rules and didn't tell me." Like Agnew, they now claim that their methods are no different than what was acceptable in the past and what is taking place now in other parties. They are not entirely wrong about this - as can be seen by the public spectacles that were presented during the elections to Likud Party institutions.

However, these self-justifiers did not take into account the critical mass wherein quantity becomes quality. The tricks cooked up by a few back-room party pols to move a few hundred party members from one faction to another are not the same as open and methodical forgeries and deceptions involving tens of thousands of people. A number of senior Likud figures made the same mistake in their party's central committee when they did not hesitate to flagrantly traffic in votes and openly hand out favors, actions which in retrospect are suspect of being bribes.

The Likud has gone downhill to the point where known criminals are numbered among its central committee members; in Labor, according to Frisch's findings, some criminal acts were performed, and the police will now investigate whether they can be ascribed to specific individuals.

More instructive than all was the response by the five Labor leadership candidates to the Frisch investigation: Shimon Peres ignored it, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer denied it, Amir Peretz said he would continue campaigning and only Matan Vilnai and Ehud Barak expressed shock at the moral disgrace that had been uncovered.