Jerusalem of Gold

Does Israel Have a Corruption Problem?

A poster in Jerusalem depicts former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. (Baz Ratner / Courtesy Reuters)

Last month, Israel's attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, announced that he was closing a 12-year investigation into Avigdor Lieberman, who until mid-December was the country's foreign minister. The investigation focused on the suspicion that the minister had used foreign corporations with fictitious owners to hide private funds that he had received while in office. "If brought to court," Weinstein explained, "the case would likely end in an acquittal." The attorney general did, however, decide to indict Lieberman for a relatively minor offence -- breaching the public trust.

The effect that the indictment will have on Lieberman's political career is still uncertain. If he were found guilty, the court would still have to make a special declaration that he acted immorally in order to force him to take a hiatus from political life. And for now, even though Lieberman resigned from his post as foreign minister, election polls still suggest that his right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, which merged forces with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud and formed the Likud-Beiteinu list, will share the leadership of the next coalition government. Assuming he receives a mild verdict, Lieberman will yet again be a senior minister in the Israeli government.

Off the record, officials in the Ministry of Justice admit that the watered-down outcome of the Lieberman investigation is an alarming sign that law enforcement may be losing ground in the battle against corrupt politicians. "There are three types of Knesset members," Mali Polishuk-Bloch, a retired Knesset member with a record of anticorruption activities, remarked recently. There are "those to whom envelopes with cash are offered and they take them, those who reject the offer, and those to whom no one dare make such an offer." The two latter groups seem to be becoming endangered species. Last month, three parliamentarians to whom no one would think of proposing a bribe -- Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Michael Eitan -- were shoved out of political life in the Likud Party primaries.

Are politicians in Israel more corrupt than others? At least to an outside observer, that might seem to be the case. The Israeli government has no official data on the number of investigations dealing with political corruption, but the count has undoubtedly surged in the last decade, particularly during Menny Mazuz's tenure as attorney general, from 2004 to 2010.

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