Israeli Corruption, Jewish Problem?

Even after the storm in the cabinet over the Jewish People Planning Policy Institute's annual assessment, the institute isn't apologizing for talking about the corruption affairs plaguing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other government ministers.

"I unequivocally stand behind the things that were said," said institute head Avinoam Bar-Yosef, a former journalist for Maariv. "There is no doubt that in the annual assessment of the situation of the Jewish people, the corruption affairs cannot be ignored. This is very disturbing to Jewish communities - that seven people who hold some of the highest offices in the land are suspects or on trial.

"If we want to nurture Jewish identity, it must be based on pride," he added. "What's happening in Israel doesn't particularly help - this harms pride. It didn't begin with Olmert. It began with [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon. This is a very grave concern."

The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute was established about five years ago by the Jewish Agency for Israel, but Bar-Yosef says it functions completely independently. The institute is one of the most prestigious research centers in Israel and the Jewish world. Its board of directors is headed by Ambassador Dennis Ross ("Dennis Ross was not involved in writing the report," Bar-Yosef says), and its board includes Hebrew University political science Prof. Yehezkel Dror, former Canadian justice minister Prof. Irwin Cotler, former finance minister Prof. Ya'akov Ne'eman, Hebrew University human rights Prof. Ruth Gavison, and Prof. Uzi Arad, head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.

The institute presents its annual assessment of the Jewish people to the government for discussion.

It is probably the only research institute to receive this status. This tradition was established by Sharon, and Olmert has followed in his footsteps.

Bar-Yosef says that the institute's activity has made the government take into account its decisions' effects on the Jewish people as a whole, and has also driven it to establish a forum for crisis management among the Jewish people.

The institute's reports are presented to the major Jewish organizations and the large Jewish communities. Bar-Yosef says some communities use the reports to build their budgets.

However, the annual assessment became politically controversial at this Sunday's government meeting. Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann passed Olmert a note, drawing his attention to a passage in the report that stated that the "close of 2008 found both the U.S. and Israel on the cusp of leadership changes, the former by constitutional design, at the close of a fascinating electoral cycle, the latter by virtue of the chronic instability of Israel's system of government, as well as its persistent problem of corruption; indeed one hope is that from the rubble of the Olmert government a cleaner political culture may emerge."

The report also states, "2008 was a dismal year in Israeli political life. The long-simmering crisis of Israeli political leadership brought to the fore by the Second Lebanon War of 2006 showed no signs of abating. Following the resignation in 2007 of president Moshe Katsav resulting from a number of criminal charges, including rape, 2008 saw the indictment of finance minister Abraham Hirchson for theft, money laundering, fraud and other crimes ...

"This was only the latest in a series of prosecutions and criminal allegations involving high- ranking Israeli officials in recent years, including the former justice minister as well as the two chief rabbis. The multiple criminal allegations against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ... offered a depressing climax to this parade of corruption in high places."

At the meeting, Olmert responded that this "is none of Diaspora Jewry's business and none of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute's business. On what basis do you conclude this? I haven't been charged with anything yet; these are only suspicions. And former president [Moshe] Katsav has also yet to be indicted."

Defending the report

Bar-Yosef rejected Olmert's statements.

"We aren't convicting him. In no way are we doing that. We wish him success with all our heart. At the personal level I really feel for him, because he has already paid part of the price," he said. Indeed, the document also states, "Olmert has remained unrepentant and defiant, confident that he will in the end be vindicated and have the last laugh over his many foes."

"That's what happens when you let people who hide behind curtains write a report," said Olmert, referring to Professor Yehezkel Dror, a member of the Winograd commission. A few weeks ago, Dror hid behind a curtain in order to avoid shaking the prime minister's hand at a public event.

Bar-Yosef said Dror did not write the chapter on Israel; that was the work of Dr. Yehudah Mirsky, with the help of Dr. Einat Wilf. Professor Chaim Waxman and Brigadier-General (Res.) Ruth Yaron managed the project, he added.

Mirsky is a former advisor to the Human Rights Bureau at the U.S. Department of State. Wilf holds a doctorate in political science and is 14th on the Labor Party slate for the current Knesset (which puts him next in line for one of the faction's Knesset seats).

"This isn't the first time that moral decline has appeared in the reports. It was also there a year ago and two years ago, but this time the government fell and the president resigned. Does anyone think this can be ignored?" said Bar-Yosef.

"We haven't made the report into something politically controversial. We are a wholly apolitical body, entirely untainted by politics. Tell me, is there anything factually untrue? It's impossible to evade the fact that the president resigned because of accusations. It's impossible to evade the fact that the finance minister resigned because of accusations. It's impossible to ignore the fact that the justice minister resigned because of an indictment."

Does the Jewish world regard leaders' sex crimes differently from corruption?

"I think they see both as signs of deterioration."

Do you base yourselves on public opinion surveys?

"We held interviews with community leaders and heads of organizations. This issue is very disturbing. Very disturbing. Nowadays the entire Jewish world knows everything. Do you know how many people read Haaretz in the morning? They have Internet access. They know about every investigation. They know everything said about Katsav."

Aren't you supposed to be dealing with anti-Semitism and the desecration of synagogues?

"The report also addresses anti-Semitism."

The timing is pretty horrible. It seems like you're kicking someone while he's down.

"This is when the report is written."

So Olmert brings the report to the government and you criticize him?

"It isn't that we're getting a gift. Sharon decided the report would be presented, because the Jewish people was a burning issue for him. We have also written about Sharon's scandals. The test of all the papers, and this is also their strength, is that we have maintained our professional integrity. There is no argument about that."