The Unfinished Battle Against Corruption

The Corruption Perceptions Index published last week by Transparency International ranks Israel in a not very good position, with a score of 6.1, similar to its grade in previous years.

The Corruption Perceptions Index published last week by Transparency International ranks Israel in a not very good position, with a score of 6.1, similar to its grade in previous years. In 1997, we received our highest score of 7.97. Now we can be consoled by being less corrupt than Poland and Italy, although more corrupt than France, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The survey commissioned by Transparency International, an organization that tries to combat government corruption, is noteworthy in that it measures the public perception of government authorities. The survey is conducted by research institutes in each country. It's hard to take issue with the Israeli public, which believes that its government is afflicted by corruption.

Several events cast a very dark shadow over Israel's government institutions; for example, the conviction over the past year of former finance minister Abraham Hirchson, who was sentenced to more than five years in prison for stealing from the National Workers Organization; the conviction of former minister Shlomo Benizri, who received a four-year jail term for taking a bribe; and the indictment of former prime minister Ehud Olmert for fraud and tax evasion by "exploiting his position and status."

The public perception of government has been affected not only by the criminal involvement of senior officials, but also by more general phenomena that erode public trust. Among these, for example, are political appointments to public posts, "tailor-made" appointments in the public sector that damage the principle of equal opportunity, and outrageous waste and unmonitored use of public funds such as the spending by the Israeli delegation to the Paris Air Show.

In a ruling that voided a 2007 decision by the Transportation Ministry's director general to reappoint the director of the ministry's licensing division, Supreme Court Justice Edna Arbel justifiably noted that "without the public's trust, [government] authorities are like an empty vessel." Opportunities to commit corruption are widespread because of the undue concentration of power in the hands of political and professional decision makers.

The need to obtain a license, for example, to make improvements to a balcony, something to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has paid special attention, makes us dependent on government and creates an opening for corruption. Israelis' perception that their state is corrupt thrives despite the uncompromising fight against government malfeasance in recent years led by the police, the state prosecution and the state comptroller.

Early on, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz chose not to put Ariel Sharon on trial in connection with the so-called Greek island affair, despite the disturbing picture Mazuz painted of the link between wealth and government and the strong evidence of corruption that convinced the state prosecutor to recommend that Sharon be put on trial.

Mazuz is concluding his term, however, with a record of perseverance and success in the fight against corruption in high places, with the support of a committed police force and a courageous prosecutor's office. A big effort by law enforcement, which recently culminated in the cracking of an alleged Internet gambling ring, is an example of what must be done against sophisticated crime. But organized crime is indeed well organized, perhaps more than any other organization, and violence that knows no bounds must be met by further major efforts and appropriate funding.

It is reasonable to assume that Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, who will meet with the candidates for attorney general, will want to hear about their plans, if they have any, for fighting crime and government corruption, which is an inseparable part of the larger picture. We must strengthen efforts toward transparency, an approach that has not yet been embraced by the Justice Ministry. The ministry should be leading that fight. Clear priorities should be set for dealing with violations and strengthening those who must "hold the line" - internal auditors, legal advisers, police investigators, the tax authority, and anyone else who has an interest in the fight against crime and corruption.

Freedom from corruption must be fought for every day. Such a determined fight may in the future lead to a different public perception than the one currently prevailing in our society.