The Power to Plunder

The norm of taking responsibility for actions and decisions seems to have all but disappeared from the nation's public and political life. Meanwhile, the people's demand for accountability on the part of its elected representatives seems to have vanished as well

The bombing of Egged Bus No. 2 in Jerusalem in August made for a gentler media treatment of the ultra-Orthodox community. Reams of articles were written on their self-restraint, on how they preferred to scrutinize their own behavior rather than seek out whoever was guilty for the awful catastrophe that befell them. This glimpse of the ultra-Orthodox world and its practice of taking personal and collective responsibility was evidently very moving for the rest of Israeli society. True, the notion of responsibility involved here is very different than that of secular people, but it's still about taking responsibility, a rare act in these precincts.

A public figure who stands up and says, "I'm responsible," or a sector of Israeli society that does likewise, is hard to recall. Taking responsibility for actions and decisions seems to have all but disappeared from the nation's public and political life. And, in tandem, the people's demand for accountability on the part of its elected representatives seems to have vanished as well. Responsibility is not merely something accepted; mainly, it's something demanded. In neither sense is it present any longer in our public life.

Anything goes: No personal ramifications seem to accompany political failures, like those of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak as prime minister. Nor do we demand accountability from those who fought for leadership roles. People who trashed their own political parties or promulgated failed policies subsequently reappear as legitimate candidates for prime minister. Take Shimon Peres. Only a few years ago, after another serial failure, he asked an ostensibly rhetorical question at a Labor party meeting. "I'm a loser?" shouted Peres. "Yes," came the shouted reply from the hall. Not long afterward, Peres is again at the helm, charged with reviving the party.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also embodies this phenomenon. Whoever coined the phrase - following the Kahan commission findings on the massacre at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps - "Whoever doesn't want him as defense minister will get him as prime minister," was right. Sharon is now a prime minister under investigation for suspected bribery and corruption. This, however, barely makes a dent in his popularity. The notion of retribution or punishment has disappeared from the political and public realm.

It used to be different, so they say. In the collective memory are engraved at least three prior occasions symbolizing accountability by leaders, or at least a demand for it: The resignation of the government of Golda Meir following the Yom Kippur War and the convening of the Agranat commission; the resignation of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin following the exposure of the U.S. bank account held by his wife; and Menachem Begin's resignation during the Lebanon War.

Meir's case was relatively complicated. She did, indeed, resign (and, with her, as the law dictates, her entire cabinet), but not before she was elected prime minister again in the elections of December 1973. In her new government, there were ministers from the failed administration, and Haim Bar-Lev, as in "Bar-Lev Line," was named industry and trade minister. Golda's resignation, more than an act of taking responsibility, was a belated response to the unprecedented public demand for such a step.

Since Begin left the prime minister's office, Israel has had no leaders who take responsibility for their actions, and the demand that they do so has likewise disappeared. Consider the fact of years in the quagmire of Lebanon and the final hasty retreat; the Bar-On Hebron agreement; the failure of Camp David; personal corruption; fictitious organizations that finance election junkets; electoral bribery; and even an attempt to buy a Greek island with the aid of politicians. All this flourishes in a political climate that has spread to every sphere in Israel, in a fatalism that seems to have taken hold of the entire populace in recent years. Politicization has desiccated every objective norm by which the behavior of elected officials and public figures is measured. Within the political camp, as in a tribe, transgressions are tolerated, but woe betide anyone aligned with a rival camp.

Fatalistic atmosphere

The fatalistic atmosphere insures that every event or process is perceived as some kind of divine writ over which even our leaders have no control. It's happening with national security and the ailing economy, and while we're all busy there, individual incidents of corruption flourish unhindered in their shadow. The public's attention is directed elsewhere.

The demise of the demand for accountability is mainly grounded in the absence of a consensus about national goals. Even basic questions, like what the boundaries of the state should be and what constitutes its "Jewish and democratic" nature, aren't really defined objectives. Accountability is possible when there is a defined goal that a leader fails to achieve. When democratic objectives are ambiguous, how can we demand accountability? With respect to what? From whom?

The truth is, in Israeli political discourse, there isn't even a suitable word with which to make such a demand. "Accountability" - the precise political term in English for what is demanded of public figures and national leaders - has no Hebrew equivalent. On the theory that language is a determinant of consciousness, the Israel Democracy Institute tried to coin a suitable Hebrew word and came up with "divuchiyut" (from the Hebrew verb for "report"). This term, which doesn't fully convey the meaning of the English word, hasn't taken hold.

In this state of affairs, the notion that "things used to be different" is arguable. Prof. Yaron Ezrahi of Hebrew University's department of political science thinks that, given the "feeling for history" and the "discipline derived from ideology" that characterized the early days of the state, things really were different. Still, he doesn't see Golda's resignation as an acceptance of responsibility so much as a manifestation of self-righteousness. In this view, by resigning, Golda suddenly became "the little woman who doesn't understand these things and who passes along the responsibility to the military echelon."

`Ethos of a mission'

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Dr. Yuval Steinitz is sure the situation is improving, however. Looking back, he thinks Rabin shouldn't have resigned over the matter of his wife's foreign bank account. Begin, he says, didn't so much take responsibility as collapse, at his advanced age, under all the pressure.

Dr. Menachem Lorberbaum, a Tel Aviv University philosopher, believes Israeli political life always had a norm of not taking responsibility. This took root as far back as David Ben- Gurion's day, when he didn't resign after the Lavon affair. Lorberbaum, therefore, believes the norms haven't essentially changed.

Prof. Boris Kuritz, an internationally known expert in systems analysis who immigrated to Israel from Moscow 11 years ago and who recently published a book in English on Israeli governments, argues that Israel lacks a real civil society, the backbone of every democracy, and that this is reflected in an absence of appropriate decision-making and accountability.

Ezrahi sees the roots of this phenomenon in the early days of the state. "There was no culture of democratic responsibility; there was a mission to build the nation. Nation-building means you don't steal money; Rabin's resignation came out of that ethos of a mission," he says. "The democratization process in our society was not interpreted as one of strengthening the public service to the people, but as the democratization of the distribution of booty and assets. A culture of distributing the booty was created. Public assets are not seen as a deposit meant to serve public needs, but as loot, and it's `catch as catch can' for yourself and your group. There's this phenomenon in Israel of political looting. Like soldiers occupying a village and carrying off television sets, everyone who gets into power loots the assets he finds there."

`One big hunting ground'

Ezrahi notes that large chunks of the society underwent the transition from refugees and immigrants to citizens, but instead of internalizing values of civic responsibility and leadership, they still have the mentality of people receiving services. "The idea that the citizens are the masters of the country did not take root and the system went on fostering the idea that the state is one big hunting ground. Whoever can shoot himself a deer, shoots one; whoever can't, can at least bring home a rabbit," says Ezrahi. "The public did not evolve into a power that forces transparency and accountability in government. A major cause was exploitation of the security situation to aggrandize the power of the state.

Prof. Baruch Kimmerling has already pointed out that the ruling elites discovered that the public's fears permit them to shape patterns of governance without responsibility. Corruption has become a major spectacle, a drama that sells newspapers and fills life with content. The front-page headlines are like a gossip column.

MK Steinitz also talks about the role of the media in this context, but draws very different conclusions. He sees the public's tolerance for corruption as entirely natural. "The public is skeptical, with good reason," says Steinitz. "For almost 15 years they've seen investigations of senior figures, mostly from the Likud, and usually culminating without charges being brought. The public is smart, they sense the odds and get the drift. Shimon Peres could be connected to 30 billion [shekels], and they'd consider it his right, but in the Likud everything is improper `special favors.' Media hyperbole causes real damage to democracy, because it erodes public faith."

Steinitz thinks the standards in Israel are actually too harsh in terms of personal norms and the attitude to failure. "People shouldn't be resigning immediately after every error," he says. "This doesn't happen in the big democracies. When did a U.S. president resign because of a failure? Only Israel has this insanity that people have to resign after a failure. Even the best people fail, and we mustn't lose them. And we exaggerate about personal norms, too. The allegations against Bill and Hillary Clinton were much more serious than those against Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] in his day or against Sharon. But they defended themselves, they didn't resign."

No hue and cry

Steinitz, in this context, shows ample understanding of the Sharon family's silence in public concerning the Cyril Kern and Greek island affairs. "The Cyril Kern affair is nonsense," he declares. "The Greek island affair, on the face of it, does look more serious, but the public isn't really sure that it leads to the prime minister. Aside from which, what exemplifies McCarthyism? The fact that everyone was always committing small infractions, but it was the communists who were always found out. With us, it's always the people on the right. The extent of public emotion depends on how unique the event is. We have too many incidents, too many news bulletins, names being cleared too often - people stop reacting. It's not that public norms have changed, but that the norms relating to the police and the media have changed, and they are creating complete chaos. While they don't behave responsibly, the public is reacting responsibly by being skeptical."

Lorberbaum agrees that public norms haven't changed. "In every society, people use existing models," he says. "The Likud just copied Mapai [precursor of Labor], and Sharon the Mapainik is a student of Ben-Gurion in this regard." Lorberbaum views Rabin's resignation and Begin's withdrawal from public life as merely individual instances of two people who took responsibility for their actions.

In the current atmosphere, no one is raising a hue and cry anymore. The public surmises that everyone is corrupt, and people prefer to see "their" crooks in office. As the discussion concluded, Ezrahi wondered aloud "when a leader would be chosen here for some dizzying success." This calls to mind the joke about people being satisfied with whoever is least awful. That kind of choice gives the candidate, in real James Bond style, a license to kill freely. Sometimes verbally; sometimes as a kind of fable in which he can do whatever he likes in a society bewildered, worn down, preoccupied with survival, when many people are dreaming of a strong leader who will come along and put everything in order. The very soil, caution some, that's conducive to fascism.