The sorry spectacle of Israel’s political system going through one financial scandal after another—the latest involves finance minister Abraham Hirchson, accused of embezzling large sums of money when he headed an HMO in the 1990’s—is more than just an embarrassment. Coupled with the growth of organized crime and frightening rumors of its inroads into politics and law enforcement, these scandals are making Israelis feel these days as if they were living in a Jewish Sicily.
Is it that bad? Probably not, although it’s hard to say. Corruption in Israel is something that, even today, you’re far more likely to read about in the newspapers than to experience personally. Israel is still a country whose citizens assume, when dealing with government officials, the police, or business contacts, that they are facing someone honest. It’s not some third-world state or banana republic where you routinely slip money into your car registration papers when you’re asked for them by a traffic cop, leave a gift on the desk of the official you’ve applied to for a building permit, or promise a kickback to the executive you’re negotiating a contract with. But then again, I don’t suppose that routinely happens in Sicily, either.
In this sense, Israel is in the third and murkiest of the three categories that you can divide the world’s countries into. There are countries in which corruption hardly exists and no one would dream of trying to solve his problems by resorting to it. There are countries in which it is omnipresent and everyone understands that it is the only way to get things done. And there are countries, like Israel, in which the rules are simply not clear, and you never know if a bribe will pay off, be dismissed by whoever it is offered to with an indignant glare or weary smile but no worse, or land you in jail. Most people would never run the risk, but most people have also heard rumors or stories of others who have run it successfully. This makes corruption a phenomenon that everyone is aware of but of whose true dimensions no one has a clear idea.
The fact of the matter is that, even in cleaner times, Israel was always a country in which the rules were never quite clear. I’ve heard it said that there are countries, like Japan, in which “yes” never means “yes.” But in Israel, “no” has never meant “no.” It has always meant, “Let’s argue and negotiate.” And in Israel, you negotiate with everyone: the phone company about its bills, the storekeeper about his prices, the teacher about his marks. You don’t generally do this by offering bribes. You do it by reasoning, wheedling, shouting, crying, pleading, threatening, joking. Only suckers take “no” for an answer.
It took me a while to learn this when I immigrated to Israel in 1970. One of my first lessons came when filling out my first Israeli income-tax return. When it came to house expenses such as electricity and water bills—on which, as a self-employed writer living at home, I had a right to a partial deduction—the accountant scratched his head and said, “You know what? Let’s try deducting 50 percent.”
“What do you mean, let’s try?” I said. “What are the rules?”
“There are no rules,” said the accountant. “And even if there are, they’re too complicated to figure out.”
“Then why don’t you call the tax authorities and ask?” I suggested.
My accountant looked at me with astonishment. Clearly I had been born, not yesterday, but sometime in the previous hour. “If I ask, they’ll tell me it’s 10 percent,” he said. “Let’s put in for 50.”
We put in for 50, and it worked. Since then, I’ve deducted 50 percent of my house expenses from my tax returns every year. Is that what the law permits me to do? Don’t ask me, I just do it.
All this has a certain charm. It can be frustrating and unnerving, of course—there’s something to be said for knowing where you stand, instead of having to find out ad hoc each time—but it has made Israel in many ways a much more flexible place to operate in than other countries. Although people complain about Israeli bureaucracy, Israeli bureaucrats are models of human kindness compared to bureaucrats I’ve encountered in other places. You can actually get them to change their minds or make an exception for you if you’re skillful enough in presenting your case.
Such a modus operandi becomes deadly, however, the minute corruption enters into it. It’s one thing for an official behind a desk to give you the permit he really shouldn’t have given you because you’ve burst into tears or turned out to be his third cousin once-removed. It’s another thing for him to give it to you because a wad of cash has fallen unnoticed from your wallet while you were leaving. And this, once rare, is becoming a more and more accepted practice.
If Israel is not going to end up in corruption category 1, it is going to have to change its ways of doing things and learn to go by the rules—everywhere. In some ways this will be too bad. Just last week my wife phoned the cable TV company and got it to lower the rates it charges us by threatening to move to a rival. An Israel you can no longer do this in will be a less simpatico place. But it will also be a cleaner one.
Indeed, if one wants to be optimistic, this is what is happening in Israel right now. Case after case that might have gone unprosecuted before is now ending up in the courts, the cases of ranking politicians not excepted. It looks bad, and it is bad. But eventually, the lesson may sink in. There may be a golden mean between Denmark and Nigeria, but if you have to choose, it’s a lot better to be Denmark.