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Rebranding Israel Won’t Get Rid of Corruption

If, as the Democrats charged during the recent election campaign, the Republicans in Congress created “a culture of corruption,” what shall we say about the cultural climate in Israel? When God brought the flood, it was because He “saw how corrupt the earth was.” The Hebrew word for “corruption” is “shchitah”; from the same root, we have the word “shochet,” slaughterer.

The depressing current chronicle of financial corruption in Israel grows longer day by day, as does evidence of the moral corruption we know as the arrogance of power: There’s the former public security minister and justice minister, now chair of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who is under indictment for fraud, bribery and perjury. There’s Israel’s president, soon, we’re told, to be indicted for sexual assault (eight women have lodged that complaint against him) as well as breach of trust, fraud and involvement in illegal wiretapping. There was, until he resigned following his indictment last August, the justice minister, charged with sexual harassment (specifically, the uninvited introduction of his tongue into the mouth of a young female soldier, a charge the minister stoutly denies).

There’s the bribery involved in the recent throwing of a soccer game. There’s a former health minister and labor and welfare minister, indicted for allegedly accepting favors worth millions of shekels from a contractor friend. And now there is the Tax Authority scandal, involving an as-yet-untold number of people, including, in particular, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s long-term office manager, Shula Zaken. And the prime minister himself is under active investigation on a variety of charges, some dating back to his time as Jerusalem’s mayor, others more current.

Moshe Amirav recalls that when he first met Teddy Kollek, back in 1973, the mayor said to him: “Young man, your government is full of drunkards. One day they will sober up, but it will be too late.” The gathering evidence suggests that they have not yet sobered up.

Never in Israel’s volatile history has the public held its leadership in such low regard — not when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol seemed inadequate on the eve of the Six Day War, not when Prime Minister Golda Meir was widely blamed for the close call of the Yom Kippur War. Olmert’s job approval rating stands at 22%; Defense Minister Amir Peretz wins just 11% approval.

Perhaps most astonishing, among Kadima voters — that’s the party Olmert leads — just 8.7% want Olmert to be the Kadima candidate next time around. Forty-nine want Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, who sounds more creative and more dovish all the time. In fact — again, among Kadima voters — if the contest to be the party’s candidate for prime minister were only between Olmert and Livni, Olmert would get 24.6% of the vote, Livni 60.9%.

Ultimately, neither Olmert nor Peretz will overcome the terrible taste left by the debacle of the summer war in Lebanon. There’s a growing consensus among Israelis that the war severely damaged Israel’s deterrent capacity, a solid chunk of which was based on the reputation of the Israeli military.

And all this at a time when Israel’s stock market is booming along, with a very thin slice of Israelis reaping the benefits — the income gap in Israel is scandalously close to the American gap, itself outrageously large — the social safety net has been dramatically frayed, the school system is in crisis and, of course, the peace process is stalled.

And it seems that every time Olmert takes a baby step forward — meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — his government takes two giant steps back, in the one case announcing a new settlement in the Jordan Valley, in direct contravention not only of the road map but also of commitments made to the United States, in the second case involving a fruitless and ill-timed military attack in Ramallah, with significant civilian casualties.

I wrote, just above, “his government,” but that is not quite how it works in Israel. The most significant difference between the American presidential system and the Israeli parliamentary system is that Israel’s governments are in fact coalitions — often uneasy coalitions of several parties, each with its own ministers in the Cabinet, ministers who serve nominally at the pleasure of the prime minister but who have their own power base.

The prime minister needs the support of his coalition partners to retain his position, and those partners more or less grudgingly provide that support. In return, they get some perquisites of power — the opportunity to affect policy within the scope of their ministries and, no small thing, to dispense patronage.

Olmert, damaged goods though he be, may yet survive a full term in office because he has been politically adept, crafting a coalition of extremely unusual bedfellows that is unlikely to come unglued. The spectacle of the demagogic Avigdor Lieberman, a clever and ultimately racist bull in an earthenware shop, sitting at the same table with Yuli Tamir, the thoughtful and liberal education minister, is superficially shocking, but there is ample precedent in Israel for what elsewhere would be considered utterly anomalous.

Brobdingnag and Lilliput. Ariel Sharon was a deeply flawed giant; today’s governors and would-be governors of Israel seem like pygmies in comparison. With barely a handful of exceptions, Livni among them, they do not seem to be able to tell the difference between a weather vane and a compass. (That’s Bill Moyers’s phrase; I wish I could claim credit for it.)

All of which is why the mood in Israel these days borders on the disconsolate. The rebranding of Israel, the current gimmicky vogue to improve Israel’s image abroad, misses the point. It’s the reality at home that is the pressing challenge.

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