For Israelis, corruption takes back seat to effectiveness

Amid scandals, a new round of talks with the Palestinians began yesterday.

With his peeling posters still clinging to billboards and lampposts from last May's elections, Prime Minister Ehud Barak is mired in controversy just seven months into the job. Israel's state comptroller says Mr. Barak won while blatantly skirting campaign finance laws.

The comptroller's stinging report and subsequent criminal investigation is raising concerns that the new premier's damaged credibility - and the effort he will have to expend in asserting his innocence - will encumber his agenda for moving ahead on peace treaties with Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began 10 days of meetings yesterday to outline a permanent treaty ahead of a Feb. 13 deadline.

But more likely, analysts here say, Israelis will ultimately overlook this corruption scandal as they have so many before it. The focus will be on the big picture: peace and security - and if there's time - the economy.

Throw the bums out? Not if they're getting the job done. A new study shows Israelis view corruption as a pervasive fact of public life, "Past research shows that internal democracy and the absence of corruption are about the last thing the public at large is concerned about," says Yohanan Peres, a sociologist at Tel Aviv University.

In the 1999, 1996, and 1992 national elections, he says, the most-cited motivating factor for voters was a party's foreign-policy agenda and views on national security. Concerns about the economy run a distant second. Leadership came in around third, he says, defined mostly in terms of how effective a candidate or party is in fulfilling their platform.

"The public wants to see good candidates and they don't care how they're elected or how much money they spend to get there," says Professor Peres. "If they think he's a good man, it doesn't matter how he wins the race."

That is not to suggest that Barak can afford to make light of his domestic woes. Israel's president, Ezer Weizman, is currently under investigation for failing to report cash gifts. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the subject of an influence-peddling inquiry. And a slew of other public figures - from Mr. Netanyahu's justice minister to the head of Israel's third-largest political party to the country's most high-profile newspaper publisher - are under criminal prosecution.

On Thursday, the One Israel alliance Barak built from his Labor Party and two center-left political factions was fined 13.7 million shekels (about $3.3 million) and placed under investigation by the national police fraud unit.

In his report, State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg charged that Barak's aides set up a series of nonprofit groups that they used to funnel money to his campaign coffers, thus avoiding strict spending limits. Of the two Barak associates identified in the report, one now serves as his Cabinet secretary; the other is a close political aide recently assigned to oversee preparations for a referendum on a peace deal with Syria. An accord will most likely necessitate an unpopular withdrawal from the Golan Heights plateau, which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war.

Barak was not spared criticism. Mr. Goldberg said he should have known what the law was, should have made sure his aides obeyed it, and should have seen "red lights" go off when they didn't. In response, Barak said he was unaware of what was going on, as he was delegating duties at the height of a busy campaign. Barak and other politicians have asked for a court ruling to clarify campaign financing regulations, suggesting that legal ambiguities have led politicians to merely take advantage of loopholes.

But Barak's defense was quickly assailed by his right-wing rivals. Though Likud and several other parties were cited in the report for similar practices, the state comptroller deemed the irregularities much smaller in scale and gave them comparatively minute fines. One senior Likud member, Limor Livnat, dismissed Barak's reaction as "pathetic," asking: "How can he not have known what was going on under his nose?"

Voter nonchalance toward corruption notwithstanding, the Israeli peace camp is worried that the opposition could capitalize on what they see as an opportunity to topple Barak and return a more hard-line government to power.

"I am afraid that this little corruption issue might overshadow the bigger, more important issue of peace," says Peres, the sociologist.

It wouldn't be the first time scandal sidetracked policy. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in 1995 at the height of his peacemaking endeavor, had to resign from the premiership in the 1970s when it emerged that his wife was maintaining foreign bank accounts, then in violation of Israeli law. Since the state's earliest days, it was common knowledge that it helped to have protekzia - slang for "contacts" - if one wanted to land a good job or slip past dense levels of bureaucracy.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), a Jerusalem think tank, 60 percent of Israelis say there seems to be more corruption now than there was in the past. In a study released Friday, the center found Israelis appear to have grown to expect corruption in politics.

"It's not a clear picture of great concern and negativity, but what is clear is that people are upset about it," says Asher Arian, a senior fellow at IDI who conducted the study. "People are disappointed but not surprised."

Focusing on particular institutions, pollsters found that trust in the presidency was at 61 percent, down from 71 percent in the same poll last April. The Army and the courts ranked at the top of the list of institutions people trust most; political parties and Israel's largest labor union ranked lowest.

"We're in a period of extreme shattering of myths," says Dr. Arian. "The nation-service type politician is one of those myths that is long ago gone."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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