The Spoils of War

You can’t have war without corruption. The history of war is inseparable from histories of corrupt power and social debasement. War attracts corruption like corpses attract flies. When a country elects “to remain on a wartime footing,” the rot can get pretty deep. Americans should know all about this.

We are nearing the end of the fourth decade of Israel’s chronic war of occupation of Palestinian lands. The web of corruption spun by this festering wound has had plenty of time to reach into the deepest nooks and crannies of both Palestinian and Israeli societies.

America’s decisive support of Israel’s war, including more than 100 billion dollars and dozens of UN vetoes, has ensnared us in the same web. To sustain the unending flow of money and materiel, American politics has had to yield to the ways of the war: lies, denial, and intimidation.

At this point, it’s difficult to understand anyone’s surprise or indignation at the state of Palestinian society in the territories. What would your community be like, after suffering nearly a century of colonial hell under the British and the Israelis, being driven off your land and made stateless refugees nearly sixty years ago? If now you were being fenced and walled inside the scraps of your last refuge, could your once strong and resilient social fabric resist unraveling into corruption, gang warfare, and economic destitution?

War’s corruption does not take sides, and it knows no race, religion, or ideology. So the acids of war’s social and political corruption have also been consuming the ties that bind Israeli society. Indeed, since Israel initiated this “occupational” war in 1967, one might ask whether it had a head start on the path toward war’s degradation. Growing recognition of the connection between the war and Israel’s corruption may be encouraging an apparent drift in public opinion toward ending “the situation”. (1,2)

In Israel, public office is no bar to an eccentric life. However, aside from grotesque outbursts of racism and hyperbole from hard-right Zionists, most of the peccadilloes reported in Israel today involve various forms of self-aggrandizement, peppered with occasional incidents of violent behavior. (3)

Each year Israel’s scores in the international indexes of political and economic corruption slide further down the scale. (4) Corruption has become a major concern for most citizens. (5) A recent poll by the Dahaf institute returned these rather shocking results, reported by YNetNews:

“87 percent of those polled said the Knesset does not represent them or only nominally represents them. Sixty-seven percent of the public believes the Knesset does not deal with social matters, and 62 percent said it deals too much with security matters. Forty percent of those said they believe lawmakers treated immoral behavior among their colleagues too lightly, and 46 percent said they thought MKs took advantage of their immunity to commit crimes.” (6)

It’s so bad that the Knesset speaker, Reuven Rivlin, recently told the retiring 16th session of Israel’s parliament that it “was undoubtedly the most vilified Knesset in the history of the state.” He urged citizens to vote for “more decent” members. (7)

Lawmakers are nominally immune to prosecution for most crimes, but their colleagues can vote to strip them of their immunity. Sometimes this procedure is used to find a scapegoat or underling to take the fall for higher muck-a-mucks.

Some of the scapegoats have achieved enormous feats of atonement. MK Naomi Blumenthal, for instance, was able to absorb nearly all of the shame for the Likud party’s widespread vote-buying scandal. (8)

While appreciative bosses often rehabilitate their “fallen” underlings, MK Omri Sharon may have set a new speed record for moral turnarounds. In the same week that he pleaded guilty to perjury, falsifying documents, and violating the party funding law during his father’s 1999 Likud primary campaign, he appeared as the campaign manager of his father’s “groundbreaking” new Kadima party. (9,10)

Papa Sharon himself has dragged this corruption scandal around for years, perennially denying all allegations of bribery, illegal campaign financing, and expropriation of (Jewish) land. Meanwhile, more pieces of an ever-larger and sleazier puzzle have become public knowledge. He has evaded several threats of indictment, leaving a sizeable sub-genre of writing devoted to ‘what will happen next, after Sharon’s imminent departure?’ Although the threat of accountability never quite goes away, Sharon can take some comfort from the polling data; apparently the public ranks him as only the fifth most corrupt politician in the country. (11)

Most critiques of Israel’s claim to the be the “only democracy in the Middle East” focus on the fact that the Israeli government seeks to reduce the numbers and distribution of one-fifth of its population, the Arabs, and denies them equality with Jews in legal and citizenship status, political representation, and social and educational support.

The recent poll cited above, taken with other surveys over the past few years, adds a supplemental line of argument. Even if we assume that one of every five people in the Dahaf poll was Arab and they all answered negatively, the poll suggests that two out of three Israeli Jews feel profoundly alienated from their government and disenfranchised by representatives that many believe (on good evidence) to be routinely corrupt. In other words, a democracy in name only. Americans should know something about this phenomenon, too.

Nor has Israel’s diplomatic corps been exempt from the ‘dirty laundry syndrome’ bred by a political culture of impunity back home. Israel’s ambassador to the United States is about to be permanently recalled after years of scandalous behavior by himself and his wife, who seems to have a penchant for slapping around immigrant staff members at the ambassador’s residence. (12) Recently, after the Israeli consul in Holland was caught sexually harassing young women, the Civil Service Commissioner felt compelled to freeze Foreign Ministry appointments altogether, just to stanch the flow of embarrassing ink. (13)

You might think we could turn to the high clergy for a little relief from this plague, but you would be mistaken.

The Rabbinate is an arm of the Israeli government that regulates religion, birth, marriage, sexuality, death, and other trifles of daily life. It is divided into two parts, one for the Ashkenazi and one for the Sephardim, headed by corresponding chief rabbis.

The Chief Rabbi for the Ashkenazi is facing indictment for fraud and breach of trust related to his receipt of substantial monetary favors. On the other hand, the Chief Rabbi for the Sephardim skated right past the threat of a stupendous scandal, in which his son was convicted for the kidnapping and beating of an ultra-Orthodox youth who had the audacity to date the Chief Rabbi’s daughter. This crime transpired over several days, in the Chief Rabbi’s home and elsewhere, with the active participation of his wife. (14,15)

Yes, it’s remarkable what you can get away with in Israeli politics. Not long ago, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was campaigning for the Likud leadership. He publicly told his fellow party members that he had been offered the post of finance minister in the Italian government, but had declined the job in order to stay in his beloved Israel, “to the chagrin of many”. (16)

The following day we learned that there was both more, and less, to the story. YNetNews headlined the correction this way: “Italian tycoon: Treasury offer to Bibi was joke”.

It seems that the “offer” came from an Italian industrialist, whom Netanyahu had fancifully endowed with the power to confer ministerial appointments. This gentleman was reportedly “astonished” at the news from Israel. He said he had made his comments “lightheartedly”, as “a joke.” (17)

Four days later, despite being caught in public with his pants down and his mouth firmly planted on the leaky hot air balloon of his ego, Israel’s US-bred superhawk was still able to trounce his opposition and snatch the Likud top spot. And we thought Ronald Reagan was coated with Teflon.

The blithe acceptance of such behavior reflects deep problems in a society’s self-respect and its regard for honor and truthfulness in public life. Israel has become a casualty of its own war.

JAMES BROOKS serves as webmaster for Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel. He can be reached at:

1. 49% of Israelis back Jerusalem division, YNetNews, 12/16/2005

2. Hebrew University poll: Half of Israelis favor talks with Hamas
Ha’aretz, 12/21/2005

3. A catastrophe of a Knesset

By Gideon Alon, Ha’aretz, 12/21/2005

4. Israeli economic corruption rises, YNetNews, 8/3/2005

5. Third of Israelis say corruption has risen, YNetNews, 12/9/2005

6. 87% of public say Knesset does not represent them, Ha’aretz, 7/29/2005

7. MK Rivlin: This Knesset is most vilified in the history of the state, Ha’aretz, 12/21/2005

8. Is that Naomi?, By Yossi Sarid, Ha’aretz , 1/8/2004

9. MK Omri Sharon to admit corruption in plea bargain, Ha’aretz, 11/15/2005

10. Suspension of Omri Sharon deferred, YNetNews, 11/30/2005

11. Poll: PM perceived as corrupt, YNetNews, 11/22/2005

12. Envoy Ayalon may be forced to step down, Ha’aretz, 11/6/2005

13. Foreign Ministry appointments frozen, YNetNews, 12/22/2005

14. AG denies hearing for chief rabbi on possible fraud charge, Ha’aretz, 5/30/2005

15. Chief Rabbi Amar’s son admits to charges of abduction and abuse, Ha’aretz, 11/23/2005

16. Hollywood take note: Netanyahu said no to Italian Job, Ha’aretz, 12/16/2005

17. Italian tycoon: Treasury offer to Bibi was joke, YNetNews, 12/16/2005