The Bottom Line / A Meeting of the Minds

The TV show that calls itself "Council of Sages" evidently feels no compunction to meet the standards that its name suggests. The show, hosted by journalist Dan Margalit, has fixed guests Amnon Dankner, Tomy Lapid and Aryeh Deri. This week its subject was corruption in government.

Specifically, the discussion was about the complaint of accountant-general Yaron Zelekha against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert regarding the privatization of Bank Leumi.

It is one thing to hold such a debate when some of the participants are known as supporters, even personal friends, of the prime minister. Deri's participation is the real eyebrow-raiser, though. It will be noted that he has done prison time for accepting bribes when serving as a minister, but that the team evidently did not feel disqualify him from being an expert on corruption in government. Quite the contrary, perhaps.

Then there is Dankner, editor of Israel's second-biggest daily paper, Maariv. And Lapid, who until recently was Israel's justice minister. These distinguished persons surely have not forgotten why Deri was jailed. They are far more likely to remember perfectly well, but to figure that is no reason to disqualify him: Again, on the contrary, it may be a good reason to legitimize him in the media and before the public.

With norms like that among leaders of the press and government, one can hardly be surprised at the ruckus that arose when Arcadi Gaydamak told Yedioth Ahronoth, "I'll get 40 seats," when anticipating what might happen if he were to enter national politics.

Gaydamak, to recap, was convicted of tax fraud in France, in 1993. He was sentenced to fines and a 13-month suspended sentence. To recap some more, he is still wanted in France, for allegedly running guns and possibly for bribery, too. Gaydamak has not been tried on these suspicions because he fled France, but to this day there's an international warrant out for him, courtesy of Paris.

Russia, Israel and apparently Angola too, the country where he carried out his controversial arms dealings, are the main ones he can still visit freely. By the way, here in Israel, too, Gaydamak has been under questioning on suspicion of money-laundering.

A history like that would normally quash any ambitions of public office that a person might entertain, but not in Israel. Here Gaydamak was even allowed to buy a radio station: The attorney general ruled that the statute of limitations had come into effect regarding his crimes in France, and never mind that outstanding international warrant for him. Certainly, he may also run for the position of prime minister.

The norms that let Aryeh Deri sit on a TV panel as a pundit on corruption in government would let Gaydamak win 40 seats in an election, if he continues to hand out goodies to all the miserable and downtrodden in Israel.

No doubt about it, the unfortunates in Israel love Gaydamak. You will have noted that these same downtrodden are the power base of Shas, the party that Deri used to run.

That is no coincidence. Deri, the man who mapped out Shas' political path, and Gaydamak may come from the two extreme poles of Israeli ethnicity, but there is no difference between them when it comes to their political and social conduct. Giving money to the poor to buy their hearts also assures that the poor will remain poor and dependent on handouts.

The social-democratic world has long understood that's not the right way to help the needy. Clinton and Blair changed the system, when they concluded that what the poor need is to be taught to help themselves. No more charity and presents, which may ease present distress, but won't help the impoverished escape poverty. Instead, they should be given tools to dig their way out of the hole. Empowerment, they call it: education, training, daycare, that sort of thing.

That is how to help the weak, and it's not a way Gaydamak would support, or that Shas would promote. Leaving the poor hungry but grateful is how they get political support. And that is the one path that Israel must oppose, if it really wants to narrow social gaps.