JERUSALEM — When longtime Shin Bet security chief Avraham Shalom was implicated in ordering the deaths of two captured Palestinian bus hijackers and then covering up his agency's involvement, he was invited to the Cabinet meeting convened to figure a political way out of the scandal.
He wound up resigning, but only after receiving a presidential pardon that guaranteed him immunity from prosecution in the case. Meanwhile, he has continued in his post while the search for a successor goes on, and he has already been offered a new job as a top terrorism adviser to the man scheduled to take over as prime minister in October.
Before Shalom, there was Rafi Eitan, the man who ran what officials here describe as the unauthorized spying operation in the United States that recruited U.S. Navy counterterrorism analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard.
In the furor that followed Pollard's arrest, Eitan lost his job as head of a previously secret Israeli intelligence agency. But soon afterward, he was installed as head of the government-owned conglomerate, Israel Chemicals.
Even an official blamed by a judicial inquiry for having played a key role in a fiasco that cost his fellow Israeli citizens billions of dollars got off lightly by many standards.
Yoram Aridor, a former finance minister faulted in the 1983 collapse of Israel bank shares, was later nominated to the parliamentary committee overseeing changes recommended by the inquiry commission that had condemned him. That proved too much even for the oft-forgiving Israeli Establishment, and his name was quickly withdrawn. But Aridor remains a member of Parliament and a frequently quoted economic seer.
However it may look to an outsider, these and many other cases of leniency toward officials implicated in various kinds of wrongdoing involve more than the workings of some self-protective "old-boy" network, according to Israelis.
They also reflect a feeling of shared danger that permeates the subsurface of this seemingly fractious society and a deeply rooted tendency to "protect our own" forged across thousands of years of Jewish experience with persecution.
What Israelis call proteksia is often based on contacts made in the 1940s during the struggle to establish a Jewish state, according to Michael Elkins, a longtime British Broadcasting Corp. commentator on Israeli affairs and himself a participant in that effort.
"It's the proteksia of shared assumption of risk," Elkins said. "These are networks that other countries don't know anything about. You don't have the intensity of the struggle in living memory."
That tradition has been continued with each succeeding generation of Israelis by a system of universal military service and virtual lifetime reserve status in a country that has fought five wars in less than 40 years.
Most Israelis are in close touch with their old army buddies, particularly those who served in elite fighting units such as the paratroopers. In civilian life, they attend each other's weddings, "sit shiva" together during the traditional Jewish period of mourning at the death of a relative and sometimes die together when they're recalled to serve in some new war.
"That's a network," said Elkins. "They're bound."
It is a phenomenon intensified by the small geographic size and limited population of a country where it is possible to drive from one end to the other in a few hours.
Even Jerusalem, the most populous Israeli city, is more like a small town in which everyone seems to know everyone else. And it is a lot harder to condemn a man you know than one you do not.
More Chuckles Than Anger
Even when they hear that some acknowledged scoundrel or incompetent has been appointed to public office on the basis purely of political ties, Israelis seem more likely to shake their heads and chuckle knowingly than to get angry.
Confronted with the case of an official who had used his position to steal, the late Levi Eshkol, Israel's second prime minister, once recalled the passage in Deuteronomy: "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn."
In plain speech, if a man is doing an important job for you, do not condemn him for taking care of himself while he's at it.
Aharon Abuhatzeira, who served both as minister of welfare and minister of religious affairs under former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, had his sentence commuted to three months of community service after he was convicted on three counts of fraud and corruption involving misuse of public funds--charges that carried a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
That was in 1983. Within months, Abuhatzeira, the son of a revered rabbi, was reelected to Parliament by a mostly religious constituency which saw him as the victim of prejudice against Jews of Middle East and North African origin.
Awed by Intelligence Units