How Many Seats Is Corruption Worth?

Now in the opposition, it's easy for Shinui to declare war on cronyism and corruption. They used to put up with it quite nicely.

"Targeted assassination of corruption" screamed a blood-red headline in Shinui's in-house journal, which came as an insert in one of the local papers this weekend. The subordinate headline declared that "Shinui is embarking on a war against the political appointments, government corruption, sewn-up tenders."

The writer, Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, bemoans the disappearance of a sense of shame and the cynicism that rages. "The thin veneer of the culture of governance has cracked, and the rust is eating away at the entire system," warns Lapid.

So long as Lapid and his party were a major component of "the system," they put up quite nicely with the cynicism, the cracks and the rust. When Lapid was justice minister, he made enormous efforts to defend Ariel Sharon amid his legally dubious affairs.

He appointed an attorney general who has closed all the files on Sharon and who has frustrated Minister Meir Sheetrit's Primaries Law, which sought to take the selection of Likud MKs out of the hands of the party's central committee.

Only a few weeks ago, on the eve of the budget vote, Shinui was imploring Sharon to bring it back into the coalition. The party has but one condition: Canceling special allocations for United Torah Judaism. Actually, there was nothing corrupt about this allocation: It was transparent, above-board and even partially justified.

In his article, Lapid quoted the state comptroller, who in his most recent report wrote, "I am concerned by the danger of politicization of the Civil Service."

Lapid may label these political appointments a cancer, but he forgets to mention that the report also happens to mention a certain Avraham Poraz, who as interior minister appointed two members of the Shinui Party council to work for the ministry.

Populism doesn't cost money. It sounds great, it happens to be in fashion right now and it gives good screen. The question is how many Knesset seats is it worth. In the final analysis, this is what interests Lapid, and he is not alone.

On the front page of yesterday's Haaretz, Yahad recycled the election slogan that brought down the Yitzhak Shamir government in 1992: "We're fed up with your corruption." Right under the nose of opposition leader Lapid, the chairman of the Yahad party, Zehava Gal-On, has collected the signatures of 40 MKs on a demand to hold a Knesset session on corruption, with the participation of Prime Minister Sharon. The session will take place in about two weeks.

According to Knesset regulations, Sharon will have to discuss the subject. "I had a dilemma," says Gal-On. "Should the prime minister, who in my opinion is the prime example of public corruption, be the one to talk about this issue? I decided that this discussion had to take place."

The politicians have identified "corruption" as an electoral gold mine. Even the right-wing parties - the National Union and the National Religious Party - have introduced no-confidence measures against the government because of corruption.

Two parties that are interested in one and only one issue - settlements, an issue that is not often uttered in the same breath with public integrity - have also joined the crusade. If Sharon were to declare the cancellation of the disengagement today, these two parties would rush back into his arms, whitewashing even the foulest wrongdoing, with a characteristic rolling of the eyes.

The wave of reactions that broke out last week in the wake of the affair involving the foreign minister, his wife, the ambassador and his aide, now looks to be an electoral gold mine for the opposition parties. Will this still be the case on the eve of new elections, once the disengagement is behind us and in the thick of the public debate on the next stage? It depends on the circumstances. So much can happen between now and then. Presumably, so much will happen.

Army of the sheep

Right now I'm busy with sheep, Ehud Barak told someone. Sheep? Didn't you hear, he said, that they were signing up sheep as members of the Labor Party? Sheep are going to be voting in the next primary, Barak said.

If Barak thought that he had a lock on the sheep vote, perhaps he wouldn't be so gung-ho about insisting on the pristine purity of the party membership rolls. In the meantime, he is not coming across like someone truly interested in cleaning out the party stables; rather, Ehud Barak seems as if he's in it only to get rid of a horse or two that are blocking his way back to the party leadership.

Barak's problem is that he lacks a hard nucleus of supporters. It would be hard to identify any defined constituency that hankers for his return. When Benjamin Netanyahu, who like Barak was thrown out of power after a catastrophic term in office, returned to the political arena, he was backed by a public that had not abandoned him even while he was out in the political desert: the religious, the settlers and a sizable group of Likudniks, mainly from the right wing. These people were loyal to Netanyahu in the tribal sense of the word.

Barak doesn't have this. He has to go back to square one. There is no ready-made bloc of supporters. That is why he is so unsettled by the make-up of his party' constituency. A significant proportion are people who have never voted for Labor and will never vote for it again. They came or were brought to advance the fortunes of one candidate or another, and after doing their role will end.

Not all of the new party members brought in by Amir Peretz will vote Amir Peretz at the ballot box. These new members, who were enlisted by the heads of workplace labor committees, signed the membership forms simply to placate the individual who recruited them. They didn't want to get into an argument with him. They don't need any more headaches.

But does this mean that they will function like robots behind the voting curtain? Those among them that believe that Amir Peretz can and should lead the Labor Party in the next election will vote for him. Those who think otherwise will vote for another candidate. Barak and Matan Vilnai, who brought in relatively few new members, and not in any organized fashion, can depend on these people. The question is if this will be enough for them.

Peretz and Vilnai held a joint anti-Barak press conference yesterday. This pairing raises a question mark - will they support one another in a second round if only one of them advances to a decisive contest against Barak, Peres or Fuad Ben-Eliezer, and is there any significance to question?

If Barak and Vilnai advance to the second round, will Peretz be able to instruct the new members that he signed up to back Vilnai? How many of them would listen? How many would even go to vote? How many of them really care who will be the Labor chairman and the party's candidate for prime minister?

One retired senior politician was reminded this week of a meeting he had about ten years ago with a major Likud activist from the north. The anonymous activist had been Netanyahu's chief of staff in the 1993 Likud primaries, in the runoff between Netanyahu, David Levy, Benny Begin and Moshe Katsav. Even though I was Bibi's chief of staff, the Likudnik told him at the time, at the moment of truth, in the ballot booth, behind the curtain, I voted for Benny Begin. I couldn't, said the man, I simply couldn't.

Why number two?

At his farewell party last Monday at Tel Aviv University, former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter was surrounded by Shin Bet and defense establishment officials. A politician who was present at the event said the following day that the man seems ripe for entry into political life.

What do you say, the politician asked a friend of the departing security agency director. Will he be Ehud Barak's number two? The friend was amazed at the question. Why shouldn't Barak be his number two? he replied.

We've heard such talk before from previous security chiefs who left the barracks with heads - and decorations - held high, like Dichter. Ami Ayalon, for example. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, for example. They didn't go far. Not because they weren't talented and worthy and good. These days, everyone is "worthy."

But they lacked that mysterious ingredient, that je ne sais quoi that transforms an individual, be he general or professor, into a politician. Either you have it or you don't. Ben-Eliezer has it. Ezer Weizman had it. Danny Yatom doesn't have it. Vilnai has it.

The connection between Barak and Dichter looks and sounds logical, but it won't happen any time soon, and certainly not before the primaries for the Labor leadership, even if they are pushed back a few months. A close friend of Dichter's says that the former director intends to take a cooling-off period of six months to a year, during which time he has no intention of campaigning for any candidate.

MK Avshalom (Abu) Vilan of Yahad, who is a lifelong friend of Dichter's, including service together in a reconnaissance unit, says that all of the reports that refer to Dichter's imminent entry into politics are merely speculative. I estimate that he will seek in the future to continue serving the country, but in the short term I do not see any political moves on his part, says Vilan.