Israeli Corruption Cases Undermine Olmert
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Secretary Rice is visiting Israel at a time when the country is beleaguered by corruption scandals. Israeli authorities are conducting investigations into alleged misdeeds by a number of senior officials, and there are reports that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself could face a new investigation.
Some analysts say the perception of increasing corruption threatens Israeli democracy. NPR's Linda Gradstein has our report.
LINDA GRADSTEIN: The joke making the rounds these days is that the only way to get a good government job in Israel is to be indicted for corruption.
Professor IRA ISRASI(ph) (Hebrew University): Criminal investigation is being right now leveled against the president of Israel, the prime minister of Israel, the former minister of justice of Israel, the head of the Israeli foreign affairs committee in Knesset, and a bunch of other former leading personalities.
GRADSTEIN: Ira Israsi, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, says the increasing corruption and the public's disgust with their leaders threaten Israeli democracy.
Prof. ISRASI: If this mass corruption subculture will not be contained decisively, then we will create the fertile grounds for a political culture that gives a great advantage to strong, charismatic, anti-democratic leadership.
GRADSTEIN: But other Israeli analysts say Israsi goes too far. Nava Ben Ohr(ph), a deputy state attorney for 20 years, says corruption is more widespread than in the past. But, she says, Israel's democratic institutions continue to expose and punish corruption.
Ms. NAVA BEN OHR (Deputy State Attorney): I don't think corruption has infiltrated into the civil service as such. I'm convinced Israel is a clean democracy when you compare it to other systems. Only we have to take care that these things are dealt with before they become a serious problem.
GRADSTEIN: The latest scandal focuses on allegations of influence peddling in the Israeli state tax authority. Prime Minister Olmert's long time personal secretary, Shula Zaken, and the head of the tax authority are currently under house arrest. Ori Dromi(ph) of the Israel Democracy Institute says this scandal is hitting home more than others.
Mr. ORI DROMI (Israel Democracy Institute): People pay taxes and they hate it, but they do it because they trust the system. And if the top is rotten, then it really undermines the trust in democracy.
GRADSTEIN: Prime Minister Olmert has not been implicated in the tax authority scandal. Allegations of corruption have dogged his long political career, but he has never been charged.
Now Israeli media reports say police plan to question him about allegations he gave favors to business associates in the privatization of a major Israeli bank in 2005. Speaking on a visit to China, Olmert said his actions in that deal were, quote, "absolutely appropriate."
There is also an investigation into his appointments when he was trade and industry minister, as well as several real estate deals he was involved in. A new poll finds 85 percent of Israelis believe the current leadership is corrupt and 94 percent agree that corruption has weakened the state.
Linda Gradstein, NPR News. Jerusalem.
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