Admiring the Israeli Political Class

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.