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The Silver Lining in Israel’s Legal Dramas

The conviction of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert on corruption charges, stemming from his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem, no doubt dismays his supporters who were hoping he would stage a political comeback. It also, no doubt, dismays many Israelis who must be wondering about the quality of their political leaders.

Olmert is, of course, just the latest senior Israeli figure to be convicted of crimes. Former president Moshe Katsav is now serving a prison sentence for rape. Former finance minister Abraham Hirschson was sent to jail for five years in 2009 for “stealing more than $500,000 from a trade union he led before becoming a cabinet member.” Another former cabinet minister, Shlomo Benizri, was sentenced the same year for taking tribes. Former defense minister and general Yitzhak Mordechai was convicted in 2001 of two counts of sexual assault. Others, such as former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, have been tried and acquitted.

So should Israelis be worried that they are being governed by a pack of crooks and predators? Undoubtedly corruption is a problem in Israeli politics–as it is everywhere. But Israel still ranks head and shoulders above its neighbors on any measure of governance and (no coincidence) on economic performance.

The latest Transparency International survey of global corruption puts Israel at No. 36 out of 177 countries. It is far behind clean government leaders Denmark and New Zealand, but it is ahead of every other country in the Middle East except for UAE and Qatar, where corruption is a lot more difficult to measure because it is hard to know where public revenues end and royal family income begins.

The fact that Israel is actually able to prosecute and convict former prime ministers and presidents is a stunning achievement which would be unthinkable in most countries where leaders wind up in the dock only when their regime is overthrown. (Think Egypt.) While Israelis do have some cause for concern about the quality of their politics, on the whole, I would argue that they should take pride in their ability to hold political leaders to account. While the neighboring Arab states may well crow over Olmert’s conviction–there is no love lost for him because of his role in directing the 2006 war against Hezbollah–their populations, reading the news, may well wonder why their own politicians aren’t being exposed for their far greater thievery.



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