Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Hamlet in Israel

You didn’t have to be Hamlet to realize something was rotten in Denmark
Theoretically, everyone living there knew it. If not they didn’t read the newspapers.

Wednesday morning’s Israeli papers were filled with the latest scandal. Shula Zaken, the office manager of the Prime Minister’s office was under house arrest for bribery and fraud. Tax Authority director Jackie Matza and his predecessor, Eitan Rub, were also arrested on Tuesday on suspicion of widespread bribery and fraud at the authority, as well as Yoram Karashi and Kobi Ben-Gur, two high-powered businessmen, among others.

Yoram Karashi, a Judaica dealer and former Jerusalem councilman, is the brother of Shula Zaken. She reportedly pushed for Matza’s appointment at the behest of her brother Karashi. According to police reports these businessmen have been influencing their tax assessments for years, as well as having a say who was hired and fired in the Tax Authority’s offices.

Shula Zakin started out as a secretary in Ehud Olmert’s law office, and moved up the ladder with him. She was his office manager when he was Mayor, Finance Minister and now Prime Minister. Reportedly, she used these offices to finagle tax deals for favored personages, arranged through Jackie Matza, who was appointed by Olmert as Director of the Tax Authority.

The rot may go much deeper. The current Finance Minister Hirschson is now under investigation for knowing these deals went on and looking the other way at some shady practices dealing the the Nili charity. Reportedly Hirschson received a new Volvo S80 from “Nili” non-for-profit charity. Hirschson had been the Director of the charity, but was no longer employed when he received the Volvo. He is suspected of not reporting misdeeds he knew about to the police. Does he have an excuse? Probably. Time will tell how good it is.

There’s a lot of looking the other way going on. Reportedly the Attorney General Mazuz knew about the wrongdoings in Nili as well, and didn’t press charges. Mazuz was a Sharon appointee. Is he involved?

So far no one has included PM Olmert in the investigation, at least not that the media has discovered. This story broke when Israel Television’s Channel 10 found out about the investigation into Shula Zaken, and broke the story. According to Channel 10 the story did not impede the investigation. The police haven’t commented.

The way it seems, the police got onto Zakin’s influence peddling, and tax reduction deals. No one has yet reported exactly how, but it’s likely that someone in one of the various departments blew the whistle. Reportedly Zakin, her brother, and his predecessor made certain that only those willing to go along with the tax break scheme were hired or promoted within the tax authority.

The rot is so deep in the government that untangling the various threads that lead from one government ministry to another might well cause the whole fabric to disintegrate.

Serious stuff.

The implications are widespread. Did this old boy look the other way syndrome spread into the Defense Ministry? Has the greed and corruption so eroded the idealism that cronies are appointed to the highest government jobs despite their lack of ability. Pundits are now wondering if perhaps this cronyism might have been responsible for Israel’s failure in the last war.

A recent Israel TV report seems to be a prime example. Jerusalem-Magazine has cited it before. Five years ago an American-made trenching tool that could dig 15 meters down, and a couple of meters across was suggested to the Ministry of Defense as a perfect tool to stop the plethora of tunnels dug from Egypt into Gaza, and/or Gaza into Israel. The tool expose the tunnels, allowing the army to seal them off.

The tool was presented to then Israeli Chief of Staff ‘Boogie’ Yaalon, who thought it was perfect for preventing infiltration and weapons smuggling from Gaza. He suggested its purchase. The tool was brought to the attention of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who also suggested its purchase. Then the Ministry of Defense got a hold of the issue. They dithered, dallied, put the tool out for competitive bids, ultimately a good ol’ boy who was a frequent MOS (Ministry of Defense) supplier.

A few years later the guy who brought the tool to the MOS was told they’d purchased from the other supplier and that the tool didn’t work. He went to see the one that didn’t work. It was a cheaper 7-meter trenching tool, not 15 meters. Most tunnels were dug at a depth of 10 meters. Shortly after this discovery, Palestinian militants snuck under the border planted explosives at an Israeli army outpost near the border, and killed and injured soldiers. Not long after that another tunnel was dug, emerging behind the tank unit of Gilad Shalit, killing more people, and resulting in the kidnapping of Shalit.

Was the rot responsible for this malfeasance, or was it simply stupidity?

The culture of corruption in Israel seems to be replacing the culture of nation building and accomplishment. The petty bureaucrats not only rule with narrow-minds, it appears, but eyes towards a payoff. In a banana republic, despotic African regimes, or on some isolated atoll in the South Pacific this kind of behavior is standard fare, but for a country faced with nearly constant existential hostility, either in word or deed, it is intolerable.

Analysts are now wondering if the rot hasn’t become so pervasive that it has spread deep into the military. In a country where defense isn’t a joke, the feeling of unease among Israelis is growing. The latest revelations will do nothing to make Israelis sleep any easier.

The real question, though, is what can be done about this culture that has shifted so drastically from idealism to materialism, from self-sacrifice to self-aggrandizement, that the good, perhaps even the very survival of the country and its citizens has apparently become an afterthought?

Compared to Israel, it is starting to look as if Hamlet’s Denmark was a model of government.