Nov 2007 Journal

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Letter from Israel: Corruption more destructive than terrorist threat

As is its yearly wont, the Jerusalem Academic Association met to toast the New Year. Apart from the usual greetings and light refreshments, the programme also included a lecture by Mudi Levine, a retired police officer, on ‘Corruption in High Places’.

The speaker began by declaring that Israel was falling in the list of countries graded by the extent to which they fight corruption. No one in Israel could fail to be aware of the scandals and accusations of sleaze which were our daily fare in the media. Our speaker had inside knowledge of his subject, having belonged to one of the special police units investigating white-collar crime and dishonesty among Israel’s senior officials and politicians.

It turned out to be a very depressing occasion. The police investigate white-collar crime and political corruption on the basis of tip-offs, information from the media and subjects tackled by the State Comptroller. They do not tap phones or conduct surveillance without having been granted permission by the legal system. In other words, they act within the bounds that constrain every democratic regime.

Sadly, various instances come to light in which officials are found to be using their position for personal gain or to favour cronies. Worse still, elected representatives are known to use their power for dishonest and dishonourable purposes. The police endeavour to investigate these suspicions in order to verify or dismiss them. This is done, the speaker assured us, in the most thorough and professional way. If the suspicions are found to have a basis, the material is handed over to the State Attorney so that the offenders can be prosecuted.

What often happens, however, is that the prosecution mechanism turns out to be ineffective. The legal staff of the Attorney General’s office, our speaker claimed, is not always of the highest calibre. The best and the brightest young lawyers generally leave after a few years for better-paid employment in the private sector. When confronting high-powered legal counsel in the courts, the lawyers representing the state are not always able to prevail. In addition, judges are loth to incarcerate white-collar criminals together with violent offenders. In many cases, the end-result is a plea bargain, in which the wrongdoers are let off with a far lighter sentence than would otherwise be the case.

Our speaker concluded with an ominous warning. The venom of corruption is pervasive in Israeli society and could eventually undermine the foundations of our democratic society: it is potentially more destructive than any threat posed by terrorism. It is up to the media, the State Comptroller, the police, and the Attorney General to remain on their guard and protect our society.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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