Three Punks in the Jungle

The leaders of the state are not supposed to reward themselves financially (aside from receiving a decidedly handsome salary); the economy offers other channels for this purpose.

The excuses offered by Minister Yisrael Katz and Deputy Ministers Ruhama Avraham and Eli Aflalo for traveling abroad at the expense of agricultural export company Agrexco cause one to long for the approach to life that is depicted in a famous Jewish tale: The head of a yeshiva calls one of his students over and questions him. "People are saying you don't recite the blessing of the washing of the hands," the head of yeshiva says. "But that's not true," replies the student indignantly. The rabbi slaps him and says: "You little punk, you would be really sorry if it were true, too. It's enough that people are saying it."

Katz excused his trip by saying that, at the time, Knesset Ethics Committee regulations requiring MKs to receive parliamentary approval for any trip financed by an outside element were not in force; Avraham argued that she was being picked on, and she questioned why other lawmakers' trips were being ignored; and Aflalo explained that a few days after returning from his trip abroad, he had a stroke, was hospitalized and forgot the matter entirely.

Not one of the three was of the opinion that it wasn't the absence of a formal barrier that caused their downfall, but rather a fundamental flaw in the understanding of their role as emissaries of the public, and a regrettable lack of the required degree of decency to reject patently improper offers.

Being a member of the Knesset or the government is a public service. Those who have their eyes on such a role are looking to fulfill a public service of the highest degree. The perks that such an individual is entitled to derive from such a service are the opportunity it provides to implement one's political beliefs, the ability to influence the running of the state, the sense of power it affords, respect and publicity. The leaders of the state are not supposed to reward themselves financially (aside from receiving a decidedly handsome salary); the economy offers other channels for this purpose. Moreover, someone who choses the political path is supposed to be immune to material temptations, so that his decisions won't be swayed. After all, he purports to be an elected public official - to determine for the public the appropriate codes of behavior.

To Katz, Avraham and Aflalo, these truths apparently sound like Swahili. Had they been blessed with a natural sense of decency, of the kind we have seen in Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Yossi Sarid, for example, they would have immediately rejected Agrexco's offer of a "study trip" at its expense. The three find consolation in the fact that they are among the loud majority in the Knesset: Only a select few of its members spontaneously make decent personal decisions on ethical dilemmas that their parliamentary work poses; most need technical aids - such as ethical codes or laws - to distinguish between what is permissible and what is forbidden, as if common sense and basic decency do not tell an individual how to behave appropriately.

The shortcomings of the three are, perhaps, negligible in the jungle in which the affairs of the state are conducted, but they illustrate the potential for corruption inherent in their ramifications: This week, we will learn whether the prime minister manages to secure the Knesset's approval for the appointment of Ehud Olmert, Ronnie Bar-On and Ze'ev Boim as ministers. The outcome depends on the votes of a handful of lawmakers who are suspected of similar small sins (such as double-voting), and whose affairs are still under discussion in the Knesset committees and the plenum; the way in which they vote could be influenced by their considerations with regard to the possibility that they will have their parliamentary immunity stripped. And so it emerges that getting mixed up in ethical offenses can sometimes have a decisive effect on the future of the government.

Katz, Avraham and Aflalo would not have tripped up had they been working in a different moral environment; but they ended up in a tainted public arena that is wide open to corrupt behavior that is not defined as a criminal offense. Thanks to the judicial-formalist rulings of attorneys general Elyakim Rubinstein and Menachem Mazuz, Benjamin Netanyahu is entitled to run for the position of prime minister despite the Bar-On-Hebron affair, and Ariel Sharon is entitled to lead the country despite the Greek island affair. A society that does not have a normative filter that pushes out of public life people whose actions are blatantly immoral (even if not criminal) also finds itself with a wanton government establishment.