Saturday, May 31, 2008

Take A Buck

As the curtain comes down on Ehud Olmert’s political career, others take the stage to explain why Israel’s political class seems to be so plagued by allegations of personal corruption. The most highfalutin so far comes from Yossi Klein Halevi, writing for The New Republic:

The reason is that Israel was founded by revolutionaries who replaced the cautious morality of rabbinic Judaism with a rigorous but ultimately transient socialist ethic. The refugees who came from the Middle East and Eastern Europe were too disoriented to offer a cultural alternative. When socialism waned, the society lost its moral certainties. No official ethos has replaced Labor Zionism. Add three more factors—the rise of consumerism, the constant threat of war and terrorism, and the ongoing occupation—and the strain on ethical norms becomes formidable.

The frustrating result, says Klein Halevi, is that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (who has a reputation for integrity) will gain from this. “Her most notable achievement as foreign minister,” he says, “was negotiating the U.N.-sponsored ceasefire at the end of the war. That ceasefire has allowed Hezbollah to re-arm beyond its pre-war capacity, and last week's virtual takeover of the Lebanese government by Hezbollah is one more result of Livni's ceasefire.”

Presumably, a tougher leader than Livni is needed now, somebody who understands that narrow consumerism leads to softness, softness to appeasement, and so forth.

THIS IS NOT the place to deal with the silly idea that the cease-fire was either solely to Livni’s credit or her fault (or the even sillier insinuation that it was avoidable). It is Klein Halevi’s big notion—that the country seems in need of a new “official ethos,” that the decline of socialism has left selfishness, etc.,—that is worth our time, if only because it is so pervasive. It is, in the Israeli center, a disease that presumes itself the cure.

In the first place, nobody who’s experienced at first hand the decline of Israel’s old labor aristocracy, along with the rise of its youthful global business class, should doubt that this has been a good trade. Exposure to international and competitive markets, the standards of science-based entrepreneurship, the percolation of quality management ideas into Israeli companies (as different as Iscar and Cellcom), the spread of electronic commerce (cutting out all kinds bureaucratic transactions,) the blowback of cosmopolitan values from global corporations—all of these—have measurably improved Israeli civil society and the quality of life.

Anyway, dismissing Israel’s success at globalization as consumerism is itself a throwback to reflexive socialist prejudices which Israelis, and The New Republic, presumably, have left behind. My old moshavnik friends from Kfar Yehoshua have four children: one builds clean rooms for Teva, one develops software for Texas Instruments, one makes movies, another is an architect. I can report that their narcissism is not less (or more) under control than that of their parents.

But, clearly, it is not socialism that Klein Halevi is pining for. It is social solidarity per se: the idea that Jews must unite (“bringing together the Likud along with Kadima and Labor”) to fight Gaza and Iran and other enemies; unite to put (as Olmert allegedly could not) the Jewish commonwealth above private interests.

This is the kind of solidarity right-wing Israelis, like rightists everywhere, instinctively traffic in, the big family projected onto politics, the thing Hegel told us civil society outgrows, the patriotism Oliver North’s voice cracks over. The Jewish version is what Israeli centrists will also fall back on when they are feeling insecure and, not coincidentally, when they are hitting up Diaspora Jews for dough.

WHICH BRINGS US to the material cause of Olmert’s fall. If you want to understand why Israel’s politicians have seemed so slack about their spending habits and bookkeeping, you have to understand the ways Israeli public √©lites have been awash in the money of Diaspora millionaires at least since the time of Labor boss and finance minister Pinchas Sapir. Not just politicians, mind you, but Jewish Agency functionaries, university presidents, the heads of foundations and think-tanks, the heads of philanthropies, and so forth. Electoral politics are expensive and foreign Jews are sort of honorary Israelis, right? We need to build, and isn't their money, well, Zionist?

In recent years, Ezer Weizman, Ariel Sharon—and now Olmert—have all been under investigation for taking big bucks from fawning big shots. And if corruption means bending yourself to play on their prejudices (tribal solidarity is one), so be it.

There is, after all, the corruption of politicians using their influence to help foreign donors make business connections or simply show-off. But there are also public intellectuals and government officials censoring themselves so as not to offend the sensibilities of philanthropists. Read in this context Nahum Barnea’s Yediot Aharonot column on Sheldon Adelson’s subvention of Shimon Peres’s most recent conference (presented and translated by the excellent Daniel Levy).

By the way, Adelson also funds the think-tank that Klein Halevy works for. Bibi Netanyahu happens to be Adelson’s favorite politician. Funny, how when Klein Halevy discredits Livni—also vaguely ridicules the cease-fire with Hezbollah, calls for a nationality unity government, etc.—he is borrowing Netanyahu’s lines. Funny how, in all of his talk about politicians hampered by charges of personal excess, Klein Halevy doesn’t find the space to tell readers that Netanyahu was virtually hounded from office during 1998 by similar charges; that he has recently been fighting the claim that he spent something like 130,000 NIS on a six-day trip to London to plead Israel’s case during the Lebanon war (you know, the one Tzipi Livni so naively ended).

LOOK, I DON’T mean to pick on Klein Halevi, who can in any case take care of himself. I have myself run an Israeli entrepreneurship program lavishly funded by the American mogul, Sam Zell, and know something about trimming my sails. My point is Barnea’s, that bad apples generally come from bad barrels. The problem is not that Israelis consume but what Diaspora Jews have swallowed—and the institutional codependence their money has engendered. No doubt, the problem will be sorted out at the AIPAC convention, now starting up in Washington.

3 comments:

Y. Ben-David said...

Ideology does not make people good or bad. There are good and bad "right-wingers" and good and bad "left-wingers". There are good and bad "socialists" and good and bad "free-market-capitalists". I think you are misreading Yossi Klein HaLevi's intention. He is not saying that returning to socialism will make Israel less corrupt, nor do I think he is saying that adopting some other ideology in place of will restore the "social solidarity" you say he is calling for.
In actuality, Israel has always had corrupt leadership. Everyone has heard about "proteksia" (connections) and if you knew the right person in the MAPAI-Labor Party (or someother political movement allied with the old MAPAI Establishment) you could get a nice job, get to the head of the queue at the Kupat Holim (Sick Fund) or other such benefits. Histadrut companies were grossly mismanaged because they knew that the MAPAI-headed government would bail out their losses with taxpayer's money year after year (this was finally done away with, fortunately). This is out-and-out thievery-robbery of the citizens. The centralized economic structure of the country gave bureauctrats power to enrich a businessman by giving him the right to operate a monopoly, or to give "subsidies" (again from taxpayers' money) to open up a loss-generating factory in some development town, which after the entrepeneur pocketed the subsidies, would go under.
However, due to the socialist ethos of the period, people hid the goodies they were getting illegitimately from public site. With the decline of this ethos, people now like flaunt their money. That is the main difference.

The question then boils down to what a person who is in a position of power's ethics are. In the 1960's people said "if it feels good, do it", or "what is right is what you can get away with" and people all over the world have now adopted these values (e.g. Bill Clinton). It should be no surprise that these values should become popular in Israel. Howver, in the United States, all major politicians are expected to belong to a church or othe religious organization, because the public likes to believe that its leaders have transcendent moral beliefs. As Yossi Klein Halevi pointed out, the secular socialists among Israel's founders broke with tradtional religious values and substituted materialist values for them. So when an Olmert or Barak or Netanyahu get into power, what is the basis for their ethics? Is it the "what is right is what you can get away with", or do they have the transcendent values I referred to. Of course, we all know that there are dishonest religious people as well, but I think it is legitimate to ask those who are asking for the trust of the public to tell what they think about moral issues and to give examples from their own life history of what their character is really like. Olmert has shown that being a "slick operator" is not enough and such a person can cause immense damage to the country. Public trust must be restored to the leadership or Israel will continue to be plagued by security and other problems into the future.

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