Relations Between Israel's Elected Officials and the Rich Undermine Decision-making Ability

The social environment influences the decisions of everyone, especially the decisions of a person whose political future is often in the hands of the wealthy.

Avichai Mendelblit (right) consults with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a weekly cabinet meeting, September 2015.
Ohad Zwigenberg (Pool)

In recent months, long discussions have been conducted between the offices of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over claims that the latter’s relationship with Shaul Elovitch, who controls Bezeq and other telecommunications companies, creates a conflict of interest.

The Attorney General’s Office concluded that Netanyahu must not have anything to do with matters pertaining to Elovitch because of the two men’s close personal friendship, a position the Prime Minister’s Office firmly rejected. This week Mendelblit barred Netanyahu from acting on issues related to the businesses of Elovitch or those of competitors that would have a direct impact on the operations of any of Elovitch’s companies.

In taking this step, Mendelblit proved his independence and ability to insist on the fundamental principles of proper decision making. Nevertheless, it is far from clear that his decision will have a direct, practical effect. The cabinet minister who will be chosen to handle these matters will be selected, it seems, on the basis of the extent of his or her loyalty to Netanyahu and willingness to carry out Netanyahu’s wishes. But even if the restrictions imposed by Mendelblit have no immediate practical implications, his principled decision has far-reaching symbolic importance. The relations between the rich and government representatives is cloaked in secrecy. Even when it is exposed, this information is not acknowledged by the relevant agencies for its wider implications for the performance of public officials.

Mendelblit took his precedent-setting decision because of the friendship between Netanyahu and Elovitch, which includes having meals together. In response, associates of Netanyahu argued that the same standards must be applied to other cabinet members who maintain social relations with businesspeople. They are right: Close and regular social connections between government officials and the rich undermine the ability of our elected representatives to make decisions in a fair and honest manner, for the good of the general public.

The social environment influences the decisions of everyone, especially the decisions of a person whose political future is often in the hands of the wealthy. Elected officials must decide between friendships with the rich and the public good. This is the most important precedent the attorney general has created for the entire public sphere.