Why Do We Need Arrests to Implement Transparency in Construction?

In the field of planning and construction, enhancing transparency as a means of reducing corruption is a lesson whose implementation cannot be delayed or await criminal verdicts.

Among the reports regarding alleged corruption in the Holyland case, and the alleged deal hatched between the Israel Lands Administration and the Salt Industries controlled by the Dankner family, the minutes of an October 2003 meeting of the ILA council stand out. They speak for themselves and are more revealing than the decisions concerning arrests that are related to confidential materials.

The Holyland luxury apartment development in Jerusalem

Without getting into the details of what was discussed at the meeting and being revealed now, the scathing attack on the attorney general at the time, Elyakim Rubinstein, by then-acting prime minister Ehud Olmert - who in his capacity as industry, commerce and labor minister had served as ILA chairman - is conspicuous. Olmert was angry that Rubinstein would dare put obstacles in the way of an agreement between the Salt Industries and the ILA, whose director was Ya'akov Efrati.

Rubinstein had issued a formal opinion to the effect that "the agreement in principle has granted the Salt Industries excessive and exceptional benefits, beyond any accepted agreement in other transactions and at variance with proper administrative practice." Olmert, who has recently declared that his decisions were "businesslike and professional," didn't hesitate at the time to attack Rubinstein and tell him bluntly that the attorney general should not even dare tell him how to deal with state land.

The chairman of the Jewish National Fund at the time, Yehiel Leket, was at the 2003 meeting and directed the attention of those present to Rubinstein's opinion, to the effect that public assets must be maintained for the benefit of the public. Leket was cut off by Olmert, who admitted that perhaps he had made a mistake in signing the agreement, but also found an "out" in the fact that Rubinstein had not flatly prohibited the transactions in question.

The issue of a possible criminal dimension of the agreement over alleged payment of bribes is a legal question, the answer to which is tied to the strength of the evidence and the existence of actual proof concerning what was committed clandestinely, if it in fact was committed. This is true both here and in other cases, in general.

Apart from the question of criminal culpability, which is being pursued by more than 100 police officers as well as a large number of prosecutors, the lack of proper administrative practices is already apparent. This includes disregard on the part of the executive authorities for the "gatekeepers" - including the attorney general and the state comptrollers, particularly Micha Lindenstrauss, against whom Olmert waged an all-out war on a variety of fronts.

At this point, and without waiting for the results of the criminal investigation, steps must be taken to enhance the transparency of decision-making involving planning and construction, including the regular publication of agreements between all the public administrative bodies and private parties involved.

Transparency in public proceedings is considered a primary tool in the battle against corruption. Indeed, a United Nations treaty obligates countries to take steps to enhance transparency as a means of fighting corruption. Also, the charter of the European Union establishes EU residents' rights to access documents held by its various institutions.

The actual implementation of a freedom of information law, which was adopted in Israel over 10 years ago, was one of the conditions of Israel's admission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It is widely known that Sweden and Finland are considered to be the two least corrupt countries in the world, and both have effective legislation allowing individuals to obtain information on matters of public interest.

Israel received a rating of between 6 and 7 out of 10 on an index of freedom from corruption. Public authorities here have yet, for the most part, to incorporate the practice of transparency, which among other things includes keeping complete minutes of meetings and disclosing them publicly in "real time."

In Israel there are times when administrative petitions must be submitted to the courts, which have the power to require the authorities to fulfill their legal obligations, and to exercise the right to freedom of information. In 2002, a protracted battle by the lands administration was brought to an end, concerning the ILA's refusal to publish details of a contract it had signed with a company that won a public tender. The court ruled in favor of the party seeking the information and ordered the company, which also objected to the disclosure of the contract details, to pay NIS 50,000 in legal expenses. That sum, however, pales in comparison to the amounts involved in the cases under discussion today.

The Justice Ministry is currently working to achieve cabinet approval for the creation of a unit that would enforce the concept of freedom of information vis-a-vis public authorities. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should follow the example of the order issued by U.S. President Barack Obama regarding the duty of transparency in government.

In the field of planning and construction, enhancing transparency as a means of reducing corruption is a lesson whose implementation cannot be delayed or await criminal verdicts. What has already been disclosed makes it clear enough that the corridors of power must be opened up.