Israel’s deepening slide into corruption

A corrupt society is an unhappy society, and an unhappy society lacks resilience. Israel must heed the alarm sounded by its slipping rank on a global corruption index

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Illustrative image: iStock
Illustrative image: iStock

Israel this week recorded its worst-ever score in Transparency International’s ranking of public sector corruption worldwide. The nonprofit group, which produces an annual Corruption Perceptions Index using data “collected by a variety of reputable institutions, including the World Bank and the World Economic Forum,” placed Israel 36th on its 180-nation list — a ranking, headed by Denmark, Finland and New Zealand, in which higher is better.

We’ve slipped from No. 28 five years ago. In our region, we’re now considered more corrupt than Qatar. Among the 37 OECD members, we’re 29th and falling, though still deemed a little cleaner than Italy and Poland. (The UK is in 11th place, Canada 13th, the US 27th, Iran 150th, and Lebanon 154th. If you were wondering.)

The Transparency International report, whose methodology is, ironically, quite hard to make sense of — it says it uses data from 13 external sources, and that its scores “reflect the views of experts and business people” — does not specify why Israel is now assessed as being more corrupt than at any time since the Index was launched in 1995.

But presumably our ranking was harmed by the fact that the prime minister was on trial for corruption, and fell from power, in the period under review — indicating either that we were led by a criminal, or that the state prosecution subverted the democratic process by helping oust our elected leader with charges that it could not prove; the judges have yet to determine which. (If, following the bizarre intervention of a former Supreme Court president, a plea bargain is eventually reached, they never will.)

Committed to a vision of “transparency, accountability and integrity” and “a world in which government, politics, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption,” the Index compilers also presumably took into account the fact that Israel labored through 2020 and most of 2021 without a state budget, since that was the only political means by which the then-prime minister was able to hang on to power, temporarily.

They also likely took a dim view of Israeli firms’ government-licensed export of dark arts spyware, and that software’s use and abuse by more and less savory regimes around the world; next year’s report will presumably be able to assess the veracity of allegations that Israel has also been using NSO’s Pegasus spyware against its own citizenry.

Ironically, the 2021 Index was published on the day that Aryeh Deri, a former minister of interior and Shas party leader, pleaded guilty to tax offenses (in his second major run-in with the law), and days after the new coalition approved a state commission of inquiry into suspicions surrounding its predecessors’ multi-billion dollar submarine and other naval vessel purchases. Fodder, presumably, for next year’s report.

There’s no knowing whether the roaring business of private-sector financial corruption in Israel — the innumerable fraudsters who use skewed trading tools, investment scams, fake cryptocurrency schemes and all manner of other ruses to fleece vast sums from victims worldwide — is a factor in Transparency International’s considerations. But our national “transparency, accountability and integrity” are critically undermined by that layer of criminality, by the fact that the police and state prosecution are proving abidingly unwilling and/or unable to tackle it, by the influence wielded by those who have become vastly enriched by such crime, and by their success in intimidating much of the Israeli media into refraining from exposing them.

Bolstering this criminal blight still further is a new trend in which judges place and maintain unwarranted gag orders on those few cases that do actually get to court — an inexplicable practice that discriminates against victims since it protects the alleged criminals, keeps their names out of the public eye, and thus allows their scams to continue to flourish.

In such compelling fact-based Hollywood movies as “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight,” the meat of the drama lies in investigative journalists’ exposure of corruption and crime; it is assumed, as was indeed the case in these real-life instances, that once the press had done its job, law enforcement would move in to bring the criminals to justice. In Israeli real life, by dismal contrast, a shrinking group of gutsy investigative journalists attempt to expose corruption, battling threats both legal and not, publish their material and… nothing happens. Or rather, the police and state prosecution generally do nothing, leaving the criminals free, wealthy and emboldened.

Transparency International’s list, with its worsening scores for Israel, is followed a few weeks later each year by the UN’s World Happiness Index. Here, Israel has for years performed spectacularly well; we actually rose two spots to 12th in last year’s survey.

But these two contrasting trends, I suspect, will very soon prove mutually exclusive. Citizens of corrupt countries are not generally contented.

We’d like to sustain our national happiness; it’s also crucial to our national resilience. So we need to more effectively tackle corruption.

** This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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