Today, Singapore, 17/09/2006
In the middle of a government crisis brought on by the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel’s heads of State and Government, President Moshe Katzav and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert respectively, find themselves targets of investigations whose outcome may well shorten their tenures in office. While accusations against them differ fundamentally, the President being accused primarily of sexual improprieties, the Prime Minister of political favoritism and receiving illegal financial benefits, they are both fairly accurate reflections of changes on Israel’s social and political landscape.
For many years, issues of personal and sexual conduct by political and military leaders, unless grossly out of line, never became public knowledge. The media colluded in keeping these issues quiet reflecting to some degree a lack of public interest. Similar to the situation in France or Germany (and unlike the US), politicians were quite safe when cheating on their wives and rarely paid a public price.
Media competition and the need for increased exposure to gain votes has had a severe impact on politicians’ privacy. At the same time, there have been tangible changes in what the public expects from its leadership with regard to personal conduct. Sexual harassment, not uncommon until just a few years ago particularly in the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) with its many women soldiers, has become politically incorrect. The publicity given to a couple of cases in which senior IDF officers were prosecuted and convicted for subjecting women soldiers under their command to unwarranted advances has made an impact.
The President of Israel is now being investigated for something resembling what US President Clinton did to Monica Levinsky – abusing his office to gain sexual favors from a young lady working for him and earlier improprieties with several other women. Just like with Clinton, the public is probably more concerned with the veracity of the President’s statements refuting all allegations and the general lack of decorum and discretion. The actual deed, just as in Clinton’s case, appears to much of the public as a forgivable human failing. In the meantime the case is a huge embarrassment to the state and as long as President Katzav does not remove himself from office, which so far he steadfastly refuses, it will continue to be until the state prosecutor decides if to indict.
PM Olmert’s list of sins is a little longer and varied and more reflective of his political activities. Accusations of political favoritism are frequent and packing the civil service with some members of the party that just swept into office is not unheard of. Olmert, in his prior position as Minister of Trade and Industry did a lot of packing and may well have overdone it. Now, at the mercy of a particularly conscientious and unforgiving state comptroller, he is only one of several politicians who are in deep water over similar conduct, including a previous Minister of Agriculture and a former Minister of Internal Security.
Less common in Israeli national politics are the accusations over the receipt of illegal financial benefits (corruption). Olmert’s earlier dealings as mayor of Jerusalem (municipalities can be a hotbed of sleaze) and as a well-connected government minister, led him to take advantage of some exceedingly profitable but questionable real-estate opportunities. The issue appears to be more one of crony-capitalism than outright corruption, but nobody would be surprised should illegal on-goings be proven. Joe Citizen has become cynical and to some extent feels that if you are straight as an arrow, you can’t succeed in politics. Otherwise it is hard to explain the forgiving public attitude towards politicians who have tripped up ethically but who have had no major problems getting reelected, Arik Sharon being just one of quite a list.
Political competitors will off course make hay of Olmert’s legal hassles but will keep it low until charges are filed, knowing all too well that they themselves, not infrequently, could be accused of similar offences.
Israel is a vibrant democracy where departure from the stricter socialist morals of the founding fathers and the adoption of neo-liberal economic principles are beginning to corrupt politics. Fortunately, the judiciary is sound and independent. For the time being it will have to compensate for the failure of the public to make wayward politicians pay for their ethical slips at the voting booth.
Both, President and Prime Minister will have to leave office if indicted for their actions. In the meantime the publicity generated will hopefully serve as a potent warning for officeholders and aspiring politicians.