The difference between corruption in Israel and other places used to be that Israeli politicians stole from the government for the sake of their parties – lama’an ha’inyan, for the cause. It was part of what political scientist Ehud Sprinzak called the “culture of illegality” in his classic 1986 study, “Ish Hayashar Be’einav,” a Hebrew title taken from the last frightening words of the Book of Judges, “every man did what was right in his own eyes.”
Sprinzak listed the reasons that the culture of illegality developed, a couple of which Haim mentioned in his last post: For one, Israeli memory included the Diaspora experience of living in tight-knit communities as a persecuted minority. Within the community, informal rules applied. The general society’s laws were unfair and arbitrary and given little respect. Once Jews came to Palestine, getting around the rules of the British Mandate became a value: illegal settlement, illegal immigration, illegal military activity were all the signs of dedication to the national cause. Sprinzak also mentioned the original, fairly Bolshevik structure of a lot of institutions in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) and Israel: resources were distributed by a bureaucracy formally committed to political values. But there really weren’t enough resources to go around. So the rules were the rules, and the resources got distributed on the basis of who you knew.
To that I would add: Since the party embodied political ideals, acting for the party was acting for Truth and Virtue. A spokesman for the Histadrut labor federation, a man from an old political family, once enlightened me with this comment, “In the early years of the state, Mapai [the ruling party] regarded the government, the Histadrut, and the kibbutz movement as three arms of the party.” So taking money from the state or the union for the party made perfect sense.
In the early 1990s, I interviewed an old Education Ministry official who’d been in charge of elementary school education in religious schools. He was a sweet, principled, sad man and he was sad at the time about some corruption stories. I explained that Israeli pols stole for the cause.
“Ah,” he said, his facing lighting up as he quoted a traditional blessing, “so we can still say, ‘You chose us from among all nations.'”
Well, the concept of the chosen people has taken a beating since. If a quarter of what’s been leaked from the investigations of Ehud Olmert is true, he’s a true believer in the individual and the free market: He steals for himself.
But is a quarter-true too high an estimate? Heavily incriminating leaks from Israeli police investigations, especially against public figures, are more common than indictments or convictions. The police seem to give away a lot, always conditioned on minimal or no attribution. The cop reporters, it seems, are so excited by their leaks that they rush, Judith Miller-style, to publish, without questioning the motives of the leakers. One motive, in my estimation, is to make the person under investigation feel that the cops already have everything, so he might as well sing and try to cop a plea. In the end, any indictment filed is much weaker than the press reports – creating the false impression that bigwigs can get away with everything.
Ergo, Olmert may well be a crook, we just don’t know yet. He may merely be a slimy pol living a millimeter within the law.
And if he is a crook? A friend at Shabbat lunch today, someone with much political knowledge, suggested that he’d rather keep Olmert, corruption and all, than get Bibi or Barak back in the prime minister’s office. His political conclusion matched the slogan from the 1991 election for governor in Louisiana, when two candidates to enter the run-off were neo-Nazi David Duke and the famously corrupt ex-governor, Edwin Edwards. “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important” said bumper stickers.
I don’t swallow this conclusion easily, even though I believe that Bibi has no plan for the country’s future but to hold the territories, build settlements, and hope that his speeches will dissuade the world from noticing the occupation. Barak’s plan for Israel’s future is in our past, buried at Camp David. Olmert is groping his way toward understanding that he’ll have to make a deal with the Palestinians. He is a bargain-basement, cheap imitation of a heroic leader, but he’s what the shop carries right now. So my friend argued. I think my friend dismissed Tzipi Livni a tad too easily, but I’d agree that she’s also more hawkish than Olmert.
I don’t like “Vote for the Crook,” because I want Israel to outgrow the culture of illegalism. It’s hard to argue against the settlement enterprise – as I do – that it is the greatest expression of illegalism, and meanwhile defend an apparently corrupt leader who might eventually stumble toward an agreement to remove settlements.
But then, in 2006 Palestinians had to choose between the far deeper corruption of Fatah and the apparent clean record of Hamas. Given those choices, I have a lot of sympathy for those who saw Fatah as the lesser evil. I wish there’d been a few percent more Palestinians who’d voted for the crooks. It would be a great relief to find out the cops are using the reporters, and Olmert is merely slimy. I’d like to feel that politics in Jerusalem are still a bit more uplifting than politics in Ramallah.