Taking Stock / A Clear and Present Danger

Much ado about nothing? Our survival is at stake, and it doesn't matter if criminal intent can be proven or not

Four and a half years after taking the job, and four years after publishing his findings on the "Greek island" affair, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz seems to be repeating his mistakes.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is suspected of accepting envelopes stuffed with cash from donors. He is also suspected of personally intervening, while serving as industry minister, on behalf of clients of his close friend, a lawyer. He is suspected of buying a house, which is fine, but of later ordering his staff to help the developers who sold him the house, which is not.

The deeds of which the prime minister is suspected are unethical at best and corrupt at worst. But Mazuz, along with most of the nation's reporters and public figures, insists on confining the debate to whether Olmert's behavior was criminal in intent.

In other words, the question of whether our prime minister is a corrupt wheeler-dealer capable of ugly, twisted behavior does not matter. If the prosecution cannot prove criminality, then everything's peachy keen and the press can start writing latter-day versions of Much Ado About Nothing.

Instead of dwelling on whether or not criminal charges are going to be pressed, and when, Mazuz should be saying that he is going to publish a public report detailing all the prime minister's questionable deeds. At the same time, he should remind the public and its elected representatives that there are other tests to gauge a person's fitness to take public office, control public finances and send soldiers to their deaths besides mens rea ("guilty mind"), the convoluted legal definition of criminal intent behind which the people devising our children's future are hiding.

Indeed, from what depths did that naive, ingenuous, borderline-bonkers cry emanate? Where did you spend the last 20 years, in an igloo? You can't mean it.

But on second thought, I suddenly grasped that the problem was not this sanctimonious lawyer wasting paper (or bytes, in this case) on such trivialities. The problem lay with me.

? Maybe we are at fault, for not telling our readers often enough just how many of the politicians and public figures that we meet spend most of their time chasing perks and arranging matters for their friends.

? Maybe we should be telling our readers more often what so many of our politicians and leaders, our Knesset members and public personalities, do when the cameras and mikes are turned off, what fills their schedules: arranging jobs or other benefits for the boys, for nephews and nieces and business people and party hacks.

? Maybe we do not tell the public enough about the sorry ignorance and superficiality revealed in some of the most important economic debates in the cabinet and Knesset. Or about the fact that so few of our elected representatives and ministers do their homework properly, and really understand the burning issues of the day.

? Maybe we are not driving home the message about the arrogance, the hedonism, the lack of professionalism at the levels where the big decisions are made. Maybe we are not depicting the true coziness between Knesset members and lobbyists, the incestuous relations between big businessmen and the people controlling the government's resources.

? Maybe we should be reminding ourselves and our readers more often that "public mission" is not just a ridiculous nerdy expression, and that the chase after cotton candy, the obsession with the chaff and not the wheat, by those who control our taxes and are supposed to lead us to a better future, is ugly and twisted - even if a "guilty mind" cannot be proven.

Perhaps it is our duty to remind the taxpayers and people who wish to raise their children in Israel what the great danger of government corruption really is.

When a public figure is corrupt, when he "helps his friends," he is diverting the resources of the many to benefit the few. He is:

? Destroying the incentive of people and companies alike to excel, to become more efficient, to improve, to compete, to advance. When the winner in the "free market" is the government's pet, the incentive to acquire knowhow and improve diminishes.

? Shredding social cohesion and creating that nasty feeling of being deprived. Economic inequality in Israel is not only between rich and poor, between the intellectuals and those who could not afford to acquire an education. It is also between those near the government trough and those who are not.

? Generating an inefficient allocation of resources and hurting economic growth. When regulation and resource allocation are based on unprofessional considerations, growth is dragged down, gross domestic product drops and inequality widens.

? Exacting a toll even from himself. Our prime minister is an extreme example. How much time does he have available to run the nation, between being grilled by the police and wondering what his friends Shula, Uri, Ra'anan and the devil knows who else told investigators?

Before you shrug and say that corruption is endemic everywhere, think again. Israel's situation is not like that of "the rest of the world," and the rules of the game in the global economy have changed. Unlike nations such as the United States, China or Germany, for which maximizing economic potential is nice but not crucial, Israel cannot survive unless it stays at the forefront of the competition among the world's economies. Corruption prevents us from exploiting our potential to its fullest. It is a clear and present danger.