Taking Stock /Who Is a Corrupt Jew?

The president of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, recently pressed the state prosecution to get a move on, and formulate responses to petitions addressing the perennial question, "Who is a Jew."

Various motions demand recognition of reform and conservative conversion for the purposes of the Law of Return, and Barak wants to be able to hand down a ruling himself before retiring in December.

His urgency, which Haaretz revealed on Monday, and his desire to hand down the ruling himself, reflect the supreme importance, the historic significance, that he relates to the issue. But before he leaves the bench, perhaps Barak should apply the same pressure (mainly to himself), to rule on a no-less important question: Who is corrupt.

During his tenure on the Supreme Court, corruption has spread at terrifying speed, and Barak - as a leading figure in the legal world - has a hand in its proliferation.

When the son of the prime minister was allowed to run the country for five years only to be convicted and sentenced to nine months' hard time, when time and again the leading candidate to be Israel's next prime minister stands accused, and is acquitted of, alleged corruption - it screams to the skies: the rot is raging.

Israel has a large economy, a giant public budget, a vast pie to share around and everybody wants to carve off a hefty wedge of it; some crudely, some with finesse, some cleverly and some downright stupidly.

Perhaps Barak, inundated as he is with weighty matters, failed to notice the chagrin and confusion reigning among the public on matters such as what is permissible, what is prohibited, what is corrupt, what is the norm, what goes beyond the pale and - "but everybody does it."

The most confused of all seem to be the commentators and reporters. Straightforward articles about investigations, charges, the accused, the convictions, the acquitted and the serially "released for lack of evidence" show the bewilderment.

Most puzzling of all are the rulings the courts hand down regarding public-sector offenders.

While waiting for Barak and his fellow judges to kindly clear up the miasma, the following is a short lexicon on corruption in the public sector.

1. A good friend: Most of the people questioned and convicted in corruption cases excel at being "good friends", as related by their friends and the press in profile articles.

Simple version: That means a person for whom friendship is paramount. He will sacrifice for them, charge by their side through fire and won't forget them when the times turn rough.

What it really means: the reason the "friend" is so "good," is because he controls or greatly influences vast scopes of state assets. He does not spend one shekel of his own money on his "friends"; all the perks, the jobs for the boys, all the "help" he confers and all the "arrangements" he makes for his buds are at the expense of the taxpayer, the people - specifically, the people who don't have "good friends" in power.

2. A good man: Most of the people questioned and convicted (or acquitted) in corruption cases are wonderful fellows, according to their friends from the Boy Scouts, school, the army and the people interviewed in the press.

Simple version: This is a mean country, the law is convoluted, there are a lot of bad, nasty little people who spend their days examining public figures through a microscope to catch them in piddling little misdemeanors. But We Know that he's a jolly good fellow and it's a real shame we don' t have more people like him.

What it really means: The writers, the interview subjects and sometimes even the judges and prosecutors mostly belong to that gang of journalists, politicians, lawyers and businessmen who scratch each other's backs.

Not only do the victims of corruption have no say in the matter: usually they don't even know they have been hurt, or why. They get up in the morning and go to work; who has the time to work out who screwed them, and how?

3. Time to take care of my own: This is said every time a minister, Knesset member or top bureaucrat leaves public service for private business.

Simple version: Until now he spent his every waking moment serving the public. All the power, the lavish dinners and the media coverage was the price he had to pay to fulfill his public mission. It is time that he, this well-meaning naif, does right by himself and his loved ones.

What it really means: It's time to pay me back for all the great things I did for you when in power.

One of the investigative forces was astonished to discover, a few years back, that the bank account of a certain public servant had accrued millions of dollars within two years, for "consultancy services". Said civil servant had not even finished high school but somehow a lot of wealthy businessmen seemed to need his advice the second he stepped down from his job.

4. Insufficient evidence / Acquitted / Reasonable doubt: Almost none of the corruption cases actually make it to the law enforcement agencies, let alone the press, and the ones that do usually end in a whimper, with the case closed for lack of conclusive evidence.

Simple version: We have a great country, with honest people guarding the public kitty. They are ethical, straight arrows who think of nothing but the public good.

What it really means: The police, the prosecution and the courts are lousy at jousting with the most expensive lawyers.

To obtain a criminal conviction, they prosecutor has to prove intent and the burden of proof is a very difficult one to carry. When the case involves top public personalities and the wealthy of the land, Israel's merciful justices have great difficulty standing tough against the lawyers.

Happily for the public personalities, none of their voters gets to read the facts in controversy in the indictments and rulings, even those that close the case for lack of evidence, or based on reasonable doubt.

For instance, the attorney general's report clearing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the Greek Island case revealed unethical behavior at best, and corrupt at worst. But nobody, including the attorney general, seemed to care.

With the help of cronies in the press, and the right lawyers and press agents, the whole story can be spun like a dreidel. No worries, within a day the Hamas or Iran or Bush will grab the headlines and the world will move on.

5. What I did was perfectly legal: So they say every time some rottenness is exposed.

Simple version: What the devil do you want? The best legal counsels in the land said it was OK. Do you really think I'd risk everything over this little affair?

What it really means: You may think what I did is ugly as sin and the facts might seem to indicate that I done wrong, but the entire civil service cowers before the might of the corruption.

Norms, common sense and ethics are meaningless. Either it's criminal" (see "acquitted" above) - "or it's perfectly okay."