Crime and Punishment: Please, Minister, May I Have an Organ? (Chapter 26)

Illegalities did not appear in my early imaginings about diplomacy, certainly not regarding interactions with my leaders. Oh, I imagined how the minister would offer me a drink, and ask me what I think. Alas, assorted wrongdoing featured in my work.

Let me begin with Ariel Sharon, an army general turned politician who rose to prime minister and was felled by a stroke in 2006. I had front row seats (but on the sidelines) at two investigations against him.

In 1997, I worked in the East Europe department of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and handled parts of a trip to Russia by Sharon, then Minister of Infrastructure. This begs a question: Why parts of the trip? What about the rest? Is the Foreign Ministry not responsible for ministers’ travel abroad?

Well, mostly. Sometimes we were told that someone else would handle a professional aspect. Or we were asked to leave a day or two empty. True, most diplomats are not qualified to compare the relative merits of gas and coal, but they specialize in how other countries work. If politicians choose to take limited advantage of our skills, and our own minister does not insist, what can we do?

A couple of years passed. I was posted in the Israeli Embassy in Washington when I received a call from police headquarters in Jerusalem. They were interested in Sharon’s visit to Russia and would travel to America to talk to me in person. I was planning a holiday in Israel some weeks later, rendering their trip unnecessary.

Two sets of suspicions were investigated, both concerning bribes. Due to lack of adequate proof, that investigation closed without indictment. But that was not the last I heard of Sharon in a legal context. In 2003, when the second story to which I was connected broke, he was prime minister, and I was working in South Africa.
One morning in January 2003, an Israeli news site reported that Sharon was suspected of receiving an illegal loan to finance an election. The alleged conduit was a friend who lived in South Africa, Cyril Kern.

Despite international coverage of the affair, the press in South Africa displayed no interest. Had they asked, I had a ready answer: In Israel, no one is above the law. However, in view of the embarrassing list of Israeli leaders facing criminal procedures, this citizen finds that to be of scant comfort.

The investigation about Sharon was secret; Israel’s Attorney General ordered an inquiry into the leak to the press. As Israel’s official request for South Africa’s help with the inquiry had gone through the embassy, my staff and I were among those questioned. We were probably never real suspects—someone phoned from the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and asked us each a few questions; that was all. The journalist’s informant was soon revealed—a government attorney who was part of the investigation. She thought that Israeli voters should know of this suspicion about their prime minister, who was up for reelection. Sharon won.

My legal adventures will now move down a notch, to cabinet level. And to kidneys. Humans need one in working order. Otherwise, unless a transplant is performed, it is dialysis or death. Probably due to beliefs on reincarnation, organs from the recently deceased are in short supply in Israel. Kidneys can also be given by living donors with matching tissue.

If family members or altruistic strangers do not come forth, the simple economics of supply and demand dictate that those who have money but no kidney will trade with those who will spare a kidney to get money. Such organ trade is illegal in both Israel and South Africa.

South Africa’s leading medical ethicist, a Jewish doctor whom I knew from my adolescence, called from Cape Town. He had heard that sellers and buyers of kidneys travel together from Israel to perform the exchange in South Africa. The embassy cabled Jerusalem. The Foreign Ministry made inquiries and received a categorical denial. Relieved, the embassy conveyed it to the doctor who had inquired.

A few weeks later, a diplomat in the embassy mentioned that his distant relative was part of a group that would come to the embassy that week to have documents notarized. As a rule, documents are notarized where they are issued. Doing it abroad usually signals emergencies. Had the tourists been robbed? Did they lose their documents in a fire? He explained that his relative came to South Africa with several renal patients and an identical number of donors.

As the story unraveled, we learned a little about the trade. Middlemen in Israel match sellers and buyers; South Africa’s good medical facilities are relatively inexpensive; several direct weekly flights connect the countries. One problem stood in the way of completing the deals—South African hospitals demanded a notarized statement from both parties attesting to a close family relationship, or the organ transfer would not be legal.

Any Israeli could see that there were no blood ties between, say, a recent immigrant from Ukraine and a veteran Israeli of Iraqi origin. Notarizing what he knew to be a lie could end the legal career of the middleman’s Israeli lawyer. He phoned our consul in Pretoria, told him that notarization is needed by the hospitals, and asked for the embassy’s help. The consul, new and inexperienced, had paid no attention to recent cable traffic on the topic, and he did not ask the obvious question: Why are they not traveling with the necessary papers? He scheduled a meeting, designed to put the embassy’s stamp on a fiction.

Circumstances of all involved, those desperate enough to sell a kidney and those desperate enough to buy one, were tragic. That did not justify the embassy’s knowing complicity in a crime. The group arrived at the embassy on schedule, only to leave empty-handed. The dejected middleman gave the consul a copy of a letter from our very own minister of health (I have a copy of it somewhere) congratulating him on his outstanding lifesaving project.

Question from this taxpayer to her elected official: If you think that compensating donors for body parts is good, why did you not act to legalize that in Israel? It would save ailing patients the need to travel and huge costs. Question from an ambassador to a minister: Did you stop to consider that if organ trade is illegal in Israel, it might also be illegal elsewhere?

That was not the end of cabinet-level kidneys. The consul called me during a trip to Cape Town to say that an assistant to Israel’s minister of interior needed to talk to me urgently. I had a lunch meeting with a member of Parliament in an Indian restaurant and apologized that I must leave my phone open (but was ashamed to explain why).

The minister’s assistant called and went straight to the point: “There is a group of Israelis in South Africa for transplants. The embassy refuses to sign. No one can understand your cruelty. What do these dying people ask for? A small stamp that will save their lives? How can you be so bureaucratic? Have you no heart?”

He was trying to score political points for his boss by pressuring the embassy to act illegally. I replied that I had a heart, and it was breaking. Sadly, unlike in foreign ministry business, where I have some influence, here I had absolutely no discretion. In everything consular, embassies merely represent his ministry. No, it was not he who should have been asking me to help save lives. It was I who was begging him. All we needed was written instructions to deviate from the rules. He could send them directly to the embassy, or do the kindness via the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, which would convey his orders to us. We could sign immediately; nothing would stand in the way of lifesaving surgery.

Naturally, no such written authorization came from the minister’s office. These two groups, and others we heard about, found other solutions.

Some years after I left, the international organ network was uncovered. Its heads were tried and punished. Local hospitals and health schemes were shamed and sanctioned. Israeli doctors were named. It is easy to imagine the disgrace we—the authorities in Israel and the embassy that represents them in South Africa—were saved, simply as a result of chancing to hear that a diplomat’s distant relative planned to visit the embassy.

But my tour in South Africa was not bereft of coverage of illegalities. The press reported in graphic detail the actions of Israeli criminal gangs. They were regularly eliminating each other and doing away with their respective foot soldiers. I was taken aback when the minister of internal security asked me, “Why do they come to this country?” I did not respond as I might have. “Well, minister, this isn’t an officially sanctioned export. These people find the best places to operate. So perhaps the answer to your question lies with you?”

The embassy in Riga was the victim of counterfeiters, many of whom did a bad job of forging easily intercepted visas; presumably some of the better ones were not recognized as such. Many of them were found in the passports of good-looking young women who, tempted by the promise of much money, were about to embark on flights to Israel.

Several years after I left Latvia, a scandal broke in Israel. The University of Latvia offered distance programs of academic study, with academic degrees at the end. It emerged that some activities of the Israeli branch were not quite scholarly. Hundreds of the degrees it awarded (but not all) were derecognized. The person in charge was found guilty of bribery and of selling degrees. He was sentenced to prison and paid a fine. The saga continued as those who lost their degrees, and the pay hikes that came with them, disputed the ruling in Israeli courts.

The embassy in Riga was not involved, but whenever the matter was mentioned, in the press or in conversation, I could not help but wonder if perhaps, sometime, I was party to a hint, which turned into an idea, which led to a crime. A reason to feel guilty is always a good thing to have…

The episodes above were all impersonal and fell somewhere on the spectrum between frustrating and embarrassing. But they did not hurt. My hardest professional brushes with the law were internal ones, of assorted wrongdoing by staff, resulting in the termination of employment.

Such situations created a dilemma for this boss on what to explain to remaining personnel about sudden changes. Knowing the people who were involved, caring for them and for their families, these private involvements turned each episode into heart-wrenching, long-lasting dismay. Discussion would have made it harder still. I usually chose the cowardly way and said nothing.

I often think that I should have pursued a legal career. I can see both sides of situations and enjoy playing devil’s advocate. I am able to scan my mind for remote connections, a mental process that is similar to finding precedents. I like to talk and to persuade—if you must, call it argue. However, it seems that I will not be a lawyer in this life. So I am lucky that in addition to everything else that it gave me, diplomacy also provided me with a unique angle on unexpected aspects of law.

“Madame Ambassador: Behind the Scenes with a Candid Israeli Diplomat” by Tova Herzl
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 

(Photo: Debbie Cooper)

(Photo: Debbie Cooper)

Tova Herzl is a retired Israeli diplomat and first year law student. Her diplomatic career began in 1983 and included serving as Israel’s first ambassador to the newly independent Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and two stints as congressional liaison in Israel’s embassy in Washington, DC. She held assorted positions in Jerusalem, among them in the foreign minister’s bureau and in the president’s office. In 2003, after a tumultuous term as her country’s ambassador to South Africa, she took early retirement. She lives in Jerusalem.

Madame Ambassador: Behind the Scenes with a Candid Israeli Diplomat, by Tova Herzl: Order now from Amazon