Friday, June 27, 2008

With A Wink And A Nod

The problem with Israel’s leaders is they believe graft and corruption are normal.
This was an analysis recently in the Haaretz newspaper. According to this analysis Prime Minister Ehud Olmert didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, or at least anything that other politicians haven’t done. The old wink and nod way of running the country. Haaretz thought that the pressure on Olmert, the three investigations for taking bribes, breach of public trust, misuse of funds, may indicate a new way of thinking in Israel. However other pundits claim that this wink and nod way of running a country exists around the world and that Olmert was just not subtle enough in his approach.

The other Ehud, ex-General, now Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, chairman of the Labor Party, had his own image tarnished during his term in office when claims of illegal campaign contributions come to light. Former (forgotten but not gone) Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s son Omri was released this week from a four-month jail term for involvement in procuring illegal campaign contributions for his father’s campaign.

Under Ariel Sharon favoritism and cronyism were rampant. One notable case was an active Likud supporter who was appointed to head the Ashdod port. The man, who never finished high-school, owned a penthouse apartment and drove a Jaguar. All on a public salary. Payment, some said, for his getting out the vote for Ariel Sharon.

When the legendary Richard J. Daley was mayor of Chicago, sweetheart deals, cronyism and payoffs were commonplace. It was as if the Sopranos were running the city. But during his term Daley repeatedly denied that the Mafia existed, especially in Chicago. This when Mo Mo Giancanna and Tony Arcardo were doing business freely in the city. Many believe that Daley, a polished vote getter and party boss, managed to put just enough votes in the ballot boxes to insure John F. Kennedy’s election as President of the United States.

In China the payoffs became dangerous. One bureaucrat responsible for quality control of health products was so deeply in with businessmen that he allowed a batch of tainted Chinese manufactured Heparin to be exported to Europe. Only after an international scandal was the man removed from office, tried, convicted, and executed. All that did, according to pundits, was make the other bureaucrats more cautious.

S. Korea is rife with instances of big business paying off politicians. In South America this is considered part of doing business. One newspaper article in Israel pointed out that the big public 60th anniversary celebrations were mostly attended by businessmen rubbing elbows with the politicians. In much of the Middle East ‘bakshish’(payoff) is part of doing business. So, ask the cynics, what’s the big deal about what Olmert did? Olmert himself is probably asking the same question.

Paused outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in the Jerusalem area of Talbieh with a group on a walking tour, an Israeli lawyer raised the issue of the difference between the rule of law in Israel and in the USA. The discussion arose when he said he’d studied for and passed the New York State Bar.

“The Constitution,” he said. “That’s the difference.” He went on to give an example. “In the USA, if the police pull over a driver, shine a flashlight in his car, see a bag of in the back seat which turns out to be drugs, there’s an entire issue of ‘probable cause.’ Even if there are drugs in the bag, did the police have the right to stop the man, to search his car? In Israel there’s no Constitution,” the attorney said, shrugging, “so there’s no question. He had drugs, he goes to jail. In America, it’s not so simple. There they wonder ‘were his ‘Constitutional Rights’ preserved?” The point was, he hinted, that Israel was a more practical place.

“And in the USA you know, one-percent of the population is in jail. One percent! That’s an astounding figure. Can you imagine, in Israel, if one-percent of the population were in jail?”

Another in the group pointed out that the USA has very low entry levels for jail. In Israel and most other countries, it’s even harder to be arrested and harder still to be convicted. Israel, these people thought, was more humane.

The attorney tells the story of a woman who was in a shop, her baby in a buggy outside the window. The state had social services take away the baby, and arrest the woman for abandonment. “She had to fight to get the baby back. Amazing,” he said. “The bureaucracy.”

“Today, it’s even worse,” said the attorney. “After 9/11, the Constitutional Rights have been ignored more often, but still, a lot of people are in jail.”

So what about Ehud Olmert? Is he being held to too high a standard?

For years political parties in Israel, and many other places around the world, paid off their loyal workers, those who got out the vote, who brought in their neighborhoods, or their villages or their towns, who helped win the election, with jobs, or contracts, or import licenses. Some of the wealthier people in the country rose up the economic ladder through their political connections.

Ehud Olmert has been around politics since he finished law school. According to some observers he’s been a public servant his whole life. (Other’s ask if that’s the case how did he make enough money to afford such expensive digs?) He knows how the game is played. But the truth is Joe Public don’t know. The average schnooks just go about their business, go to work and come home. Only those movers and shakers who invite politicians to their son’s Bar Mitzvah’s and daughter’s weddings, are the ones who know the real secrets how to succeed in business.

Olmert may have gone to far. His office manager’s brother was the head of the income tax authority. Make nice with her, the police suspect, and her brother cuts down the tax bill of someone friendly, but friendly to whom? To Shula Zakin, or to her boss, Ehud Olmert?

Politicians who like expensive cigars and staying in fancy hotel suites and fly first-class are not unusual in Israel. The Likud leader Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu was accused of using his term in office as Prime Minister to avoid paying for simple household things. One guy who owned a moving company claimed ‘Bibi’refused to pay him for moving Netanyahu’s household belongings because the guy received a lot of work from the Prime Minister’s office.

That is the way Bibi did business. (When Bibi Netanyhu had his son’s Bar Mitzvah, the skies around the hall on the shores of Lake Kinneret were filled with businessmen’s helicopters.)

So who is there that’s left to run the country? Bibi? Barak? Olmert?

Labor leader Barak, under pressure from his party, allowed Labor MK Silvan Shalom to threaten a vote of no-confidence in the Knesset, which would have brought down the Olmert government. Few people in Israel were interested in the ‘balagan’ (the disarray, the mess, the upheaval) that would result from new elections at this point. What most people want is for Olmert to resign, and allow someone else to fill out his term, which runs until 2010.

Silvan Shalom was demanding that Olmert set a date for a primary in the Kadima Party. That way Kadima would elect a new leader, who would take over the office of Prime Minister without new elections. Olmert didn’t want to be pushed into a corner. He had been postponing setting a date for the primary. He was in no hurry to give up his seat as Prime Minister. He threatened to fire any Knesset members who voted against him.

Olmert truly believed he was doing a good job. He was on the verge of peace talks with Syria, had made the Shekel one of the strongest currencies in the world, had produced 1,000 new millionaires in Israel; had arranged a cease-fire with Hamas in the South, and secured quiet in the North. Why should he leave? Over a few hundred thousand bucks he saved on his house? A few cigars and hotel suites and first class tickets when he traveled to New York? Favors for a few friends? A few high-paying jobs to loyal party workers? Com’on. This is 2008. That’s the way things are done.

But American Jewish-Orthodox right wing businessman Moshe Talansky didn’t think Olmert was doing such a good job. He’d swung too far left. Talked about giving away the Golan Heights to Syria, the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. What would be left of the dream of Greater Israel? According to press reports that’s why Moshe Talansky told the police he’d passed envelopes of cash to Olmert, many envelopes, over a period of many years.

Walking on the street near the Prime Minister’s house, one had to first go through a pedestrian checkpoint before allowed near the house. Armed guards with automatic weapons watched carefully as the group filed through the metal gates. Hidden cameras watched as they walked past the landmark buildings, stopping to listen to the guide explain the history of the area.

At the check-point one of the group, the attorney in fact, joked, “Who has the envelope?’ And everyone laughed. It wasn’t a joke that went over anyone’s head. And here the group was, with Olmert just beyond the tall stone wall, behind the bullet-proof glass and bomb-proof roof.

Who had the envelope? With a wink and a nod, the envelope had been passed, and now the jokes were out on the street. Except it wasn’t a joke.