The Israeli prime minister is being investigated, and the media is atwitter. Reports say Benjamin Netanyahu is suspected of money laundering. It’s not the first time authorities have looked into suspected wrongdoing by Netanyahu or his wife, Sara. And if a full-blown criminal investigation were opened, it certainly wouldn’t be the first probe of a sitting prime minister or prominent public official.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in prison for bribery and obstruction of justice. Former President Moshe Katsav is in prison for rape. And the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was being investigated for bribery when he fell into a coma in 2010.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was the focus of investigations over two decades, culminating in his acquittal of fraud charges in 2013. And Interior Minister Aryeh Deri served time for bribery starting in 2000.
To get a handle on what’s going on in Holy Land politics, JTA sat down with Yossi Shain, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University and Georgetown University and author of the new book, “The Language of Corruption and Israel’s Moral Culture” (Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir).
JTA: Why does it seem like Israeli politicians are always being investigated? Is there an unusual amount of corruption there?
Shain: No, Israel is not corrupt by world standards. It’s low on the corruption scale in comparison to other societies. … My big argument has been that since Israelis cannot unite on any other issue in society — the territories, religion and state and so on — there is an avalanche, almost an orgy of unity, to incriminate the political system. The language of corruption in Israel is an escape from any other language you need.
But some of these cases end in jail sentences — Olmert, Katsav and Deri, for example. Aren’t these cases of corruption?
Of course in Israel, as in every country, there are cases where politicians cross lines, and when they cross lines, they should be punished severely. … But Israelis are very quick to incriminate and send to jail… We have become a vindictive society.
The fact is not everything unethical should be criminalized. Even in sexual behavior. For example, [in 2006, then-Justice Minister] Haim Ramon was indicted and convicted of sexual assault for trying to kiss a woman [government employee].
If Haim Ramon misbehaved, it was not criminal. … It should be inappropriate, and the public should judge it as inappropriate, and he should be kicked out. … Bill Clinton could have been in jail in Israel for Monica Lewinsky.
How does the preliminary investigation of Netanyahu fit into your thesis?
The fact that Netanyahu got money from a criminal in France [convicted fraudster Arnaud Mimran, from whom the prime minister acknowledged receiving a donation]: bad news. Now, Bibi would say, how do I know that this guy’s a criminal? The rush to get money from donors is a big problem in politics. … It’s the same in America. And Netanyahu has been in power for a long time. The longer you are in power, the more arrogant you become, the less careful you become.
How much money is crossing certain lines? What are the rules and regulations? What is an ethical violation versus a criminal violation? These are big issues that I don’t have answers to.
But the fact that we discuss them here all the time is part of the idea that we cannot really unite on any other moral issue. Indicting the politicians undercuts the political system.
How did Israel go from a unified socialist country to the situation you describe today?
The times have changed. There is prosperity in Israel. There is money. … When [Israel’s first prime minister, David] Ben-Gurion had corrupt policies, it was that he got books from [Russian-British Jewish thinker] Isaiah Berlin sent to him with government money. Today he would’ve been in jail. Getting Oxford books for his personal library? Wow! … At the same time, there was the idea of “proteksia” [patronage]. Everybody gets a job if he’s a member of the ruling party. Today we cannot do anything like that. So there are good and bad things.
What should be done to change the language of corruption and Israel’s moral culture?
There are no solutions. … The overzealousness of the attorney general’s office is going to be reduced because the winds are shifting. People understand that the attorney general is not so clean of ambition, that people should not rush to any conclusions that politicians should be indicted.