Taking Stock / Clean as the Driven Mud

Our culture seems to think criminal charges are a letter of recommendation. State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg repeated yesterday that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stepped into a grave conflict of interests when he personally intervened in the rezoning decisions of the Israel Lands Administration, because of the lands he and his family own in Kfar Malal.

In his letter, Goldberg explains that Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein's decision not to file charges against Sharon does not legitimize the prime minister's acts.

"The State Comptroller engages in public administration, while criminal matters are the jurisdiction of the attorney general," Goldberg wrote. "Some deeds contravene, sometimes even gravely flout, compulsory norms, even if they do not cross the line into criminality ... The attorney general's decision does not grant, nor is it intended to grant, legitimacy to the deeds criticized by the State Comptroller."

With heartfelt regret, we beg to differ with Goldberg.

Not only is failure to file criminal equivalent to clearing Sharon's slate: In recent years an astonishing practice has developed in Israel, in which criminal convictions even grant legitimacy to public figures.

A long list of public figures, businessmen and top officials have been charged and convicted of criminal offenses. Yet somehow they retained their good names and influence. Some managed to keep their jobs or even got promoted.

Great PR

In many cases, they managed to spin things so well that their conviction was magically transformed into an acquittal, and the harsh criticism leveled at them by the court evaporated into thin air.

Hands up - can anybody name a person convicted of a whole slew of crimes, including falsification of corporate documents, yet was still appointed chairman of Discount Investment Corporation? Here's a hint: His surname is "Recanati."

Do you know who was found guilty not once but twice of criminal acts, including obstruction of justice, yet who remains the most powerful force in Israel's second-biggest newspaper group? You don't need a hint for that one, do you?

How about this one? Who was acquitted by the High Court of corruption, even though the evidence showed he'd abused his public position to help his friends receive permits worth millions of dollars? But the court couldn't grasp why his friends paid him, right after he left his job as director of the Prime Minister's Office, a cool $150,000 in cash.

Need a hint? He was recently one of the candidates to chair the Israel Football Association and his initials are the same as "serve sentence," although he won't be doing that.

As for the ones who were acquitted, though criminal malfeasance couldn't be proved, the courts passionately criticized the offenders, stating they had behaved unethically.

Who cares?

Yet wonder of wonders, the public system simply dismisses the courts' verdicts and opinions.

A recent case was Avi Dotan, formerly the commander of the Israel Police's central Tel Aviv unit and later the chief of the police's intelligence division. He was acquitted, though not cleared, of grave corruption charges. Setting him free on grounds of doubt, the court ruled that Dotan's testimony had been riddled with inaccuracies and that his deeds certainly involved serious ethical transgressions.

Among other things, the court wrote that considering the sensitivity of his positions, Dotan should have disclosed his business relations (via his wife) to his superiors and/or to the police's legal counsels. Regarding Dotan's testimony, the court wrote: "Dotan had been involved, materially, in establishing companies, while his statements under questioning by the police that he had no connection whatever to She'at Mishak (the Game Time company) were inaccurate, to say the least." Despite his acquittal, the evidence aroused grave suspicions that he had accepted bribes.

Apparently, in Israel, a verdict like that isn't just an acquittal, it's a letter of recommendation. This week Infrastructure Minister Joseph Paritzky announced Dotan's appointment as chief executive of the Israel Gas Corporation.

So Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his sons Gilad and Omri can rest easy. If the attorney general decides not to charge them in all these pending cases, then nobody will give a hoot that the material evidence shows they received monies improperly.

Even if the attorney general were to file charges, describing the long list of money transfers and financial acrobatics indicating they abused their positions and contacts for personal gain, they could continue operating with impunity. Everybody's innocent until proven guilty, after all.

Even if charges were filed and the courts were to acquit them, though wailing to the skies about their unethical, illicit behavior - it would only do them good, because our culture deems that tantamount to a virtual halo.

And if they were found guilty of criminal acts, well, that's no cause for concern either. They'd still have their good friends from the party, the business world, the public sector, the Knesset and the ministries who remember them fondly, and who'd take care to get them the jobs, the esteem and the power they would not eschew.