Now that Tzipi Livni has decided to hold elections in Israel, I suppose that it will be time for observers from across the spectrum to bemoan the current state of, well, the State. Israelis, too, like to complain about their politicians, especially their integrity–or lack thereof. But digger a little deeper might reveal a sign of health.
It’s hard to feel great about a country where the most recent Prime Minister resigned over corruption charges, the previous Prime Minister might have had to had not a cerebral hemorrhage intervened, his son was convicted, and the leader of the Likud opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, faced constant corruption allegations when he held the Prime Minister’s job from 1996 to 1999.
But maybe this is a sign of strength.
If you think about the problems that Olmert, Netanyahu, and both Sharons have had, they all have come from campaign finance problems. Troubling to be sure, but that results from the relative stringency of Israeli law, not from the relative corruption of the leaders.
Israeli election law is quite strict: it is very difficult for anyone to contribute to campaigns. I’m on the US supporting board of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (sort of like NRDC in Israel), and when the executive director was discussing the problems of influencing the Knesset, in my innocence I suggested forming something like an Israeli environment PAC. She had to explain to me patiently that this simply isn’t allowed in Israel.
Put another way, what gets Israeli politicians in trouble is what American politicians do all the time: PACs, soft money, independent expenditures, “nonprofit education foundations,” etc. just can’t be done in Israel. Even cases like former President Ezer Weizman, who accepted payments from political friends, could probably be arranged under US law as a sort of fancy sinecure at a fake “think tank”: if Israeli law was like American law, they just would have made Weizman the “Vladimir Jabotinsky Fellow” at the “Bar Kokhba Institute for Public Policy” and he would have gotten more money that way.
Consider what happened after Israel’s rather pathetic 2006 war in Lebanon: immediately, the Winograd Commission was formed and specifically held Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz accountable for their failures. Can anyone imagine a similar thing happening the United States with the Iraq War?
It’s critical to look at Israel warts and all. And there are a hell of a lot of warts. But the political culture in many ways is a lot healthier than the conventional wisdom holds.