M.J. Rosenberg
Israel Policy Forum
May 30, 2008 - 5:57pm

The Ehud Olmert corruption story does not particularly grab me. I read about it in the Israeli press and yawn. I have yet to get through an entire news item on the subject without skipping to the next story.

It is not that I am indifferent to corruption. I’m not. In the U.S. context, I would not support or vote for anyone who is found to have done the things Olmert is alleged to have done. (Note: “alleged”).

But even here in the United States, people are only selectively outraged by corruption. Democrats point fingers at Republicans and vice versa. Each defends his fellow Democrat or Republican when his hand is caught in the cookie jar, or worse.

But the United States has clear standards about what is or isn’t illegal. There is an entire body of law that governs the conduct of public officials and almost all officials know where the red lines are.

For instance, I know not to offer to pay for my companion’s cup of coffee at Starbucks if that particular companion is a Congressional aide. It’s a small thing but, if you work in Washington, you know what is and isn’t done here. You cannot work in or around government without learning the various prohibitions. The laws, regulations, and the culture are evolving all the time.

Not long ago, the culture was “almost anything goes.” No more. Of course, it must be said that the United States is far more efficient at dealing with blatant corruption (e.g., Congressman William Jefferson’s cash-filled refrigerator)—than in addressing the legal corruption represented by the corrosive influence of big money in the making of policy.

Sad to say, Israel is well behind us in this area. How far behind? Perhaps back to the age of robber barons or Teapot Dome. In Israel, anything goes.

Writing in Ma’ariv yesterday, Ben Caspit noted that “Olmert is a tiny sample of a very lively and secret subculture that has been thriving in Israel’s political halls over the past several decades. The one dark corner that has been suddenly and brilliantly illuminated is a small and insignificant corner in a large snake pit. It started small, with hesitation and embarrassment, but over the past several years the trickle has turned into a flood. An entire generation of ‘leaders’ have lost direction, politicians have latched onto udders of abundance and sucked (and continue to suck) cash from them.” Caspit makes graphic and specific reference to the charges that surrounded Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. (The good news is that Tzipi Livni, who may well be the next prime minister, is widely believed to be honest and strict about it).

Caspit writes: “Everyone who lived in New York knew that there was no one like Arik [Sharon] for raising cash. The Hebrew hero general, with the white shock of hair, would take the city by storm and leave empty pockets behind him. At every ‘dinner’ where Sharon spoke, emotional Jews would pay five or ten thousand dollars a plate. There were envelopes with cash on the tables.” Caspit adds that sometimes the money “was for this or that yeshiva, sometimes for the campaign, sometimes for who knows what.”

It is worth noting that Caspit refers to cash on tables in New York because much of the corruption is Diaspora-based. In the early years of the state, the Ben-Gurions, Begins, Golda Meir’s, etc. came to New York, London, and other major cities to raise money for Israel, not for themselves. None of those pioneers were wealthy and none of them wanted to be. They lived and died in their small homes or apartments, always focused on what they could do for the cause.  The next generation of leaders (particularly the baby boomers) are very different. They want for Israel, but they also want for themselves. They insist on living well, despite being “public servants.” Cultivating those with great wealth is no longer merely for the good of Israel but also to help them live as nicely as their benefactors.

In that climate, corruption is inevitable unless there are both clear laws against it and a political culture that won’t tolerate it. Israel has neither.

Removing Olmert while preserving the system that makes corruption inevitable will accomplish nothing. That being the case, I hope Olmert survives in office and continues his efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians which he has pursued with some vigor since coming to office and long before his current problems materialized.

Since becoming prime minister, Olmert has told his people some hard truths. Just this week he said, “Today we are faced with a cruel choice between the undivided Land of Israel and a Jewish state. These two cannot coexist, except in the delusions of the hallucinatory.” This is a very important statement. As far as I know, no other Israeli leader has suggested that those so zealous about the defense of the “Land of Israel” seem rather indifferent to the fate of the “State of Israel.”

Unlike most politicians, Olmert does not limit himself to telling the public what it wants to hear. That alone is reason to hope that the charges against him turn out to be false.

This does not mean that I don’t take the charges against him seriously. It simply means that, in the current context, where tainted politicians will compete to take his place, I see no advantage in pushing him out. Let him do his job, and let the Knesset simultaneously work for systematic ethics reform that will allow Israel to become what it once was. Not perfect, it was never perfect. But good enough, and striving to be better.

This column is written in grays, not in black and white. So, while I’m at it, I want to comment on the Israeli government’s decision not to permit Norman Finkelstein, a virulently anti-Israel American Jewish professor, to enter the country. Finkelstein was arrested at the airport and questioned by the Shin Bet security service for several hours on Friday. He was then expelled and told he could not return for ten years. This has become a big issue on the web and has occasioned much criticism of Israel.

Finkelstein is stridently anti-Israel and literally cheers on its enemies. During the 2006 Israeli war with Hezbollah, he addressed a rally in New York to express solidarity with Hassan Nasrallah and to say, “right now, we are all Hezbollah.” This past January, Finkelstein went on Lebanese television to chide his hosts for opposing the destruction Hezbollah helped bring on their country.

Read his words. This is an American Jew, who lives in the comfort of the United States, going on Lebanese television to criticize anti-Hezbollah Lebanese for their reluctance to die in the struggle against Israel!

Finkelstein: “I am not telling you what to do with your lives, and if you’d rather live crawling on your feet [sic], I could respect that. People want to live. How can I deny you that right? But then, how can I not respect those [Hezbollah] who say they would rather die on their feet? How can I not respect that?

Interviewer: Is there no other way?

Finkelstein: “I don’t believe there is another way. I wish there were another way. Who wants war? Who wants destruction? Even Hitler didn’t want war. He would much prefer to have accomplished his aims peacefully, if he could. So I am not saying that I want it, but I honestly don’t see another way, unless you choose to be their slaves—and many people here have chosen that.”

I often criticize arm-chair right-wing warriors here who are always ready to fight to the last Israeli. Finkelstein will fight to the last Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese in his own perverse holy war.

Pretty incredible stuff.

Nonetheless, I don’t much like banning people because their ideas are noxious.

But if Israel does evict the likes of Finkelstein, let it also expel those right-wing fanatics who land at Ben-Gurion airport every day, are welcomed at passport control, and go off to the West Bank settlements to plan attacks on Palestinians and incite against the Israeli government.

The same rule should apply to all hatemongers, right or left. Let ‘em in or send ‘em back. In the meantime let Finkelstein take his vacation elsewhere.


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