Viewpoint / The Ottoman Way

A deputy mayor in one of central Israel's cities also chairs the Planning and Construction subcommittee, the municipal organ that vets all construction permits in the city. He also works as a real estate lawyer and represents, without disclosure, customers with real estate projects in the city.

Wearing his hat as chairman of the planning and construction subcommittee, the deputy mayor promotes the interests of his clients, from whom he receives a fee based on his success. Meaning, based on the percentage of building rights he managed to attain for them. The mayor cooperates, knowingly or by silence.

Does that story surprise you? Probably not. In fact, as readers, you aren't bothered about whether the story is real or a figment of imagination. It doesn't matter because what you also know is that it could happen at any given moment in your very own town. The only thing that surprises you is that stories like this aren't exposed all the time by auditors or law enforcement agencies.

All Israelis live with the reality that local government is corrupt, especially when it comes to real estate deals. We have come to terms with that reality, and do not expect it to be otherwise. We know that the city will harass us, perhaps justifiably, over a terrace we closed off in violation of some ordnance, while averting its eyes from the throwing up of a five-story apartment house without a permit.

We all know that if we have a problem with the city, we need to hire the services of a macher, a fixer, to machete a path through the municipal red tape. We don't even notice that the term macher comes from another world, Europe of decades and centuries ago, and that hiring his services means abetting in bribery. We don't even blink at the sweeteners required for any building permit in Israel, just as they were a hundred years ago, in the times of the Ottoman Empire.

From far and wide, testimonies pour in about corruption at the various real estate committees. We have become inured. Once it was the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, a decade ago, Shimon Sheves, who was convicted of intervening on behalf of his friends, the Schuldenfrei developers, in the Jerusalem real estate committees.

Then there was the Greek island affair, centered on suspicion that Ariel Sharon wielded influence to have lands belonging to his associate Dudi Appel appended to the city of Lod. And there was the builder Emil Abramov, who was convicted together with the construction supervisor of Herzliya of obtaining permits for illegal constructs. Just a year ago, seven people were arrested, including the head of a regional construction and planning committee, on suspicions of taking bribes to approve building permits.

Letting it go by

That is the reality and everybody knows it, and despite the establishment of a police force to fight white-collar crime ("economics police"), which is in charge of real estate rot as well, we cannot assume the reality is going to change. That's because the people responsible for that reality, the mayors, make no effort to engender change, and we let it go by.

When was the last time we saw a mayor who, upon taking office, replaced the city engineer, real estate supervisor, or auditor? Rotation is famously one of the most effective ways to fight corruption, yet for some reason no mayor yet has tried it.

Nor has any mayor waved the flag of auditing all city operations, especially with respect to real estate. Or the flag of transparency. The municipal planning authorities make decisions on huge real estate projects costing tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, but none of these committees publish minutes, or report to the public. Far from the judging eye of the public, the municipal politicians manning the committees can do as they please, and the mayors, at best, keep silent.

"The local committees by their very nature are tainted with conflicts of interest, since they consist of local politicians," says attorney Eli Ben Ari, who specializes in real estate and construction at the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V'Din).

A man with a plan

The man in charge of these committees at the Interior Ministry, Shuki Amrani, who chairs the district planning committee, agrees. "There is no doubt that people with local interests can wriggle into a planning committee and promote personal interests," he says.

What is being done about it? Amrani speaks of rotation and a plan to institute procedures and organization, but it's hard to assume that he can change the way of the world all by himself. And as long as we live in an Ottoman reality and do not arise against it, as long as we continue to vote for mayors who extol opacity and open the door to corruption, the way of the world will not change.