Schooled for Scandal, Israelis Barely Shrug in Face of Latest Charges

By Noga Tarnopolsky

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — In 1977, the Israeli press revealed that then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and his wife Leah held a Washington bank account in their own names. The sum involved was under $10,000, but the money was clearly earmarked for private purposes, and Israelis were not permitted to hold foreign bank accounts at the time. Rabin was forced to resign.

Fast-forward 26 years, and Prime Minister Sharon faces allegations that he illicitly obtained $1.5 million to offset an illegally accrued electoral debt — among other scandals swirling about his Likud Party. Nevertheless, he and his party remain the odds-on favorites in Tuesday’s elections, with polls projecting Likud winning 32 seats in the next Knesset.

Israeli voters’ relative indifference to the rash of scandals has left many observers wondering what it means to democracy when accusations of chicanery in high places are met with a shrug, or even a pledge to support the accused.

“You know what?” chuckles one-time Likud spokesman Zev Chafets, now a columnist for the New York Daily News. “Reality is that a Likud voter has never been born who would vote against his party because somebody took some money.”

Israeli political culture, Chafets said, makes generous allowances for “Robin Hood-style” robbery, or, in other words, robbing for the greater good of the party. Financial chicanery for personal benefit, on the other hand, is severely, even harshly, condemned.

“It is always permissible in the Israeli system to steal for the party, and always has been,” said Chafets. “People have long ago gotten over being shocked by this. In Rabin’s case, it was specifically the smallness of the amount that convicted him in the public mind. It was petty, and it was personal use.”

But the question of personal versus private is not the sole issue at hand; cultural bonds also play a role. Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi said that “hard-core Likud voters are loyal to people, not to principles. For them the Likud is home just like [local soccer team] Betar Jerusalem is home, and even when it falls, they stick by it. It’s like someone’s brother is caught stealing; he’s still the brother. Likud voters accept Sharon as their leader and want to see him be treated with honor.”

“In most democracies,” he added, “criticizing the leader is the bread and butter of civic freedoms, but in this system here, insulting the leader is seen to be a personal insult, like it is in Russia, when the press attacks Putin and gets attacked in return.”

Israeli observers point to a number of demographic factors in trying to explain the apparent indifference with which accusations of corruption are being absorbed. Russian Jews, they point out, arrived in Israel with little if any democratic traditions. The ultra-Orthodox feel similarly marginalized from mainstream society and from the political establishment, and do not attach great importance to democratic institutions per se. Other groups that have been disproportionately affected by Israel’s social and economic upheavals — Israeli Arabs and voters of Sephardic origin, in particular — feel they have been singled out by Israeli image-makers, and often express deep doubts about accusations leveled at others.

“We have ever-growing sectors with deeply anti-democratic tendencies, or else people who have a real critique of Israeli democracy, especially of the police and the courts,” Ezrahi said. “The Russians and the ultra-Orthodox feel society is so stacked against them that they react with real skepticism or indifference — or even identification — when someone else faces accusations. In addition, the Russian sector that grew up under Brezhnev simply doesn’t have a deep appreciation for the idea of criticism of government. They have feelings of victimhood, and it is very easy for them to identify with Sharon, for example, as a victim, too.”

Lily Galili, a political reporter for the daily Ha’aretz covering the Russian sector during the electoral campaign, said she is concerned that voter apathy toward corruption may be indicative of a deeper cynicism in the body politic. “I don’t see this as a passing episode, and I think it may affect institutions of democracy in the long term,” she said. Disgruntled voters have complained to Galili that, on the same day that the Israeli Supreme Court granted permission for non-Zionist Arab parties to enter the race, the Central Elections Committee pulled the plug on a televised news conference earlier this month by Sharon when he began to attack his Labor critics. “They see it as a process of arbitrary silencing that arouses memories of Soviet censorship, and very great swaths of public had a negative reaction. It does not feel like ‘democracy’ to them,” Galili said.

Israelis draw a distinction between “the government” and “the establishment,” said Bar-Ilan University political scientist Eitan Gilboa. And in the eyes of many, especially those who identify as marginalized, the establishment appears to have it in for Sharon. “Likud people always feel there is a double standard, that the media minimize scandals in Labor Party and maximize and manipulate scandals on the right. It is part of Likud culture to feel one is the victim of discrimination. Never mind that they have been in power more than Labor for the last 30 years — it’s a mentality, a psychological condition,” he said.

Charges of personal corruption “just can’t stick” to Sharon, said Galili. “No one is willing to buy the theory that he, personally, may have benefited, so people identify instead with his “victimization,” and it is bringing the voters back home.”

When it comes to sex scandals, as in the case of party finances, Israelis are a people of forbearance. Many of the country’s founding fathers were vigorous philanderers, most notoriously Moshe Dayan, and a certain whiff of desert machismo still has appeal here. Then-president Bill Clinton was a beneficiary of this approach when he visited the country at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, only days before his impeachment. The Netanya Hilton Hotel changed its name to “Clinton Hotel” out of sympathy with his plight.

In 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu, then a candidate for the Likud leadership, announced on national television that he had been involved in an extramarital dalliance. What’s more, he related that he and his mistress — later named as his image consultant, Ruth Bar — had been secretly videotaped in flagrante delicto and that he and his wife, Sara, were the victims of an attempted blackmail by, he hinted darkly, “mafia-connected” elements of the Likud. The matter was later dropped both by the police and by Likud voters, who helped Netanyahu easily win election as prime minister.

“I don’t think people here care about sex,” Gilboa said. “That sort of thing just doesn’t make a big story here. In terms of money, I think similarly that people are less concerned than they might be in the U.S. It is all about how the scandals are framed.”

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