Israel's Donations Disease

Corruption doesn't always erupt immediately, or under all circumstances. But even if it's concealed, it's festering. Even when linked to Shimon Peres' Presidential Conference.

Yossi Sarid
Yossi Sarid
Yossi Sarid
Yossi Sarid

The conversation between former Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and Gidi Weitz in last week's Hebrew edition of Haaretz Magazine was eye-opening. Will Mazuz's successor learn anything about leaders who transgress and the way settlers treat Arabs?

Mazuz believes that "a key factor in public corruption is the dependence between the elected officials and the electorate." He said vested interests and a lack of ideology are involved, and this process "translates political power into economic benefits."

I notice another key factor in the rot and stench: donations. A politician goes begging to the tycoons, collects charity and becomes enslaved. And sometimes a fat cow wants to nurse no less than a calf wants to suckle. It's not milk, it's a poisoned chalice.

There's payback for the contribution: If you received, you are bound. From now on you're a puppet on a string. And don't let them tell you stories about a donor who gives and forgets; a reminder will arrive when the time comes.

The money cushions the giver's path to the recipient's office; it paves it with bad intentions and good benefits. That's how government and big business plan to walk hand in hand, and that's how a blackmailer and blackmailee conspire against everyone.

The corruption doesn't have to erupt immediately, or under all circumstances. But even if it's concealed, it's always festering. Not every politician who collects donations is ill, but he's a carrier.

This week I phoned Israel Maimon, chairman of the Presidential Conference's steering committee. I asked him for a list of donors to the upcoming meeting. The list is still being prepared and will be published a day before the opening, he explained. I searched for the list of "trustees" from previous years, "whose donations made the Israeli Presidential Conference possible," as the website says.

Why should I name names and get into trouble? You can search too, find somebody and judge. Among the many decent people you'll probably find dubious types whose names are familiar, and not necessarily as philosophy- and culture-loving philanthropists.

I asked Maimon why there's even a need for private funding of a public event; why doesn't the government allocate NIS 12 million and stop all the schnorring that in the end costs us more? If that happens, he replied, the government will want to control the conference's agenda and dictate the participant list. It's as if the president has a subversive agenda at his own conference. If only that were true.

In 2000, in my last week as education minister, we held a discussion on the famous Karev Program for Educational Involvement, which funds enrichment programs in the public schools. That year it had a budget of NIS 180 million, a very respectable sum. I naively asked how much of that came from the government and how much from the donor, after whom the foundation is named. ("Karev" is based on Charles R. Bronfman's initials in Hebrew.)

I was surprised to discover that the ministry had allocated about NIS 170 million and Bronfman about NIS 10 million. I almost fell off my chair. I asked to meet with him when he came to Israel. It wasn't a particularly pleasant encounter. I thanked him for his generosity and added politely: Either you increase your share or we'll be forced to do without it and part as friends. It can't go on this way.

But it did. The 2012 State Comptroller's Report included the following information: "The cost of operating the program in 2010 was NIS 218 million; 8 percent of the cost was funded by the Karev foundation." Bronfman was insulted by my words and left. Ten minutes later I received a phone call from the prime minister.

"What did you do to him?" Ehud Barak asked in a scolding tone. "You insulted him." "What do you mean I insulted him?" I replied. "I explained to him politely that the division of costs between us is unacceptable to me and has to change."

"You have to call him immediately and apologize," demanded Barak. "Not a chance," I told him. "All I did was explain my viewpoint, as I'm obligated to do as education minister. I have no other obligation."

I didn't know at the time that Bronfman's name was linked to the scandal of Barak's fictitious nonprofit organizations, as the main donor to his election campaign. That's a donation and that's its reward.

Shimon PeresCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

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