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Israeli good government proponent looks at political corruption

One of the country's key voices against government corruption is the Movement for Quality Government in Israel. Former prosecutor Michael Partem, vice chairman of the group, speaks to The Times about why corruption in Israel seems to be on the rise.

October 16, 2010|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Jerusalem — The list of corruption investigations in Israel in recent years reads like a Who's Who of the political elite.

It includes every prime minister of the last 14 years, two previous presidents, two past Jerusalem mayors, numerous Cabinet ministers and one recently convicted felon who is still serving in the Knesset, or parliament.

Ehud Olmert, the only former prime minister to be indicted, is accused of double-billing and is being investigated for allegedly accepting bribes in a real estate scandal. Former President Moshe Katsav is on trial on charges of rape and obstruction of justice. Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was investigated during his first term in the late 1990s amid allegations that he received illegal gifts from a contractor, but never charged.

One of the country's key voices against government corruption is the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, funded by donations from its 20,000 members. Former prosecutor Michael Partem, vice chairman of the Jerusalem-based watchdog group, spoke to The Times about why corruption in Israel seems to be on the rise.

When you consider the number of corruption cases involving high-ranking Israeli politicians, it leaves the impression that corruption is rampant. Is it?

It's certainly distressing to see corruption reach the levels that it has reached. But that has to be balanced by many factors. Standards have increased. The amount of exposure has increased. The tolerance of the public for misuse of public funds has decreased. Groups such as ours are pushing the authorities to take a more aggressive stance. So many cases happening now would not have come to court 40 years ago.

Are you saying that corruption itself is not worse, but that it just seems that way because enforcement is stronger?

The perception of corruption has increased. But there are not really good scientific indices in terms of actual levels of corruption. So I'm saying it's partly an increase in corruption and partly an increase in standards and prosecution. But I don't want to be accused of covering up. There is a dark side to the story, and the dark side is dark.

What's at the root of corruption today?

It has to do with Israel's very heavy emphasis on materialism and capitalism. The founding fathers were extremely ideological and somewhat ascetic. They came from a socialist background and a culture that didn't place an overriding emphasis on material wealth. They were interested in building a state. Indeed, these politicians died poor.

In the current generation, they are all dying rich. Olmert amassed quite a large number of properties and wealth. He's been a politician for the past 20-30 years. ... Politicians today are interested in amassing wealth. So that is certainly a cause.

Also, we don't have direct elections. The last attorney general said that many of these cases stem from the party structure and the need for politicians to find favor with their party and give out favors. ...

Why does that make someone more susceptible to corruption?

Direct elections means that elected officials are more attuned and feel more beholden to constituents. In the current system [in which citizens vote for national political parties and Knesset seats are allocated to parties based on the number of votes they receive], there is a disconnect between elected officials and constituents. Constituents are not really the public, but the parties.

Sometimes it seems the public doesn't care about corruption. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been investigated for years and it doesn't seem to have hurt his career. Kadima Party member Tzachi Hanegbi was convicted of perjury and he's still in the Knesset. Where is the public outrage?

I disagree with that notion. The public is very concerned about corruption. The increased number of people in our movement is an example.

That's only 20,000 out of an Israeli population of more than 7 million.

It makes us one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Israel. But it's true that security and economic concerns are so overriding here that they dwarf other issues in the election. Also the public doesn't feel they have a good outlet. That may discourage people and give them the feeling that they can't influence the process. But look at the prosecutions today and the aggressive investigation by the police. That would not have been possible 40 years ago and it can happen because they feel the backwind of the public supporting their actions.

You see a lot of investigations in Israel, but fewer actual indictments and still fewer long prison sentences. Many cases are dropped. Is there a problem with law enforcement agencies and courts following through?

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