Keep politics out of corruption!

Supporters of this government show increasing tolerance for graft, and this is a red flag for the rule of law in Israel
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands by his wife Sara before lighting a menorah during the start of Hanukkah in Ramat Gan on December 2, 2018. (GUEZ / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands by his wife Sara before lighting a menorah during the start of Hanukkah in Ramat Gan on December 2, 2018. (GUEZ / AFP)

In the past, it was customary to say that Israeli society is split over questions such as supporting or opposing territorial concessions to the Palestinians, or issues of religion and state. But recent years have seen the emergence of a new focus of controversy: attitudes on corruption. In this context, the findings of the Israeli Democracy Index 2018 are troubling, indicating as they do, a growing division within Israeli society along political lines regarding what is permissible and what is not.

For example, the 2018 Index finds that two-thirds of Zionist Union voters believe that the country’s leadership is corrupt, compared with just 23% of Likud voters. Similarly, while 30% of Likud voters believe that incorruptibility is the most important quality in an elected representative, this view is taken by some 60% of Zionist Union voters. Though comparisons with data from previous years are somewhat  constrained  by differences in the precise wording of the questions and by differences in respondents’ political affiliations, it can be stated (with all the necessary  caution) that a decade ago the opposite trend prevailed,, and right-wing voters viewed  the country’s leadership as corrupt more than left-wing voters.

Several explanations for this shift come to mind. One, on which I will focus, is that underlying this change is the fact that in recent years, unlike the situation a decade ago, much of the public discourse  on  corruption has been connected with  politicians from the Right, and particularly with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And so, voters have adjusted their attitudes on corruption in a way that justifies their own political choices. This process has been well documented in numerous psychological experiments examining how people change their interpretations of reality so that they are in sync with their interests and worldview. According to this approach, some people deal with the dissonance created by the gap between their instinctive rejection of corruption and the fact that their own chosen representatives are suspected of it by changing their basic stance on the meaning and significance of corruption.

It is interesting to note that in international indices ranking corruption, Israel has maintained its ranking in the first quartile among countries in the world, and continues to rank at the bottom of the list among OECD countries.

It is reasonable to assume that the kind of psychological dissonance described above does not bring with it such a sweeping change of attitudes in cases of clear-cut and serious crimes such as murder or rape. But it is a very different story when it comes to corruption offenses. These crimes are not perceived as life-threatening, and it would seem that some of them, such as receiving gifts or allegedly influencing media coverage, are viewed as falling into a gray area. That is, a lack of ethical clarity allows every individual to adapt their attitudes to these offenses relatively easily, in line with their own general worldview.

The consequences of this phenomenon are more serious and far-reaching than is the controversy itself about whether or not the Netanyahu cases do indeed qualify as  corruption. In Israel, so it would seem, a large gap has emerged between Right and Left both in attitudes towards corruption in general, and in attitudes towards the country’s law enforcement authorities. The dovetailing of political views with views on corruption may be the first step in a process that will be difficult to halt. Many studies, including those conducted by Prof. Dan Ariely and his colleagues, have shown that when corruption becomes more prevalent it becomes “infectious,” and its legitimization increases. From a rational perspective as well, as more and more people make use, for example, of “operators” to speed up the handling of requests to government ministries, then others will have to do the same, simply because this becomes standard practice, without which nothing gets done.

The Index findings present a troubling picture that requires urgent attention. If, over time, questions of what constitutes corruption and who is considered corrupt are resolved first and foremost according to how one voted in the elections, this could lead to the deterioration of Israel’s capacity to function as a law-and-order state. Politicians and public leaders in Israel, on both the Right and the Left, must come together to quench the flames of this conflict, and sharpen the understanding of the need to keep professional decisions on corruption totally divorced from their political consequences. We must maintain our respect towards the country’s law enforcement institutions, and view them as outside the political arena. Otherwise–the day is not far off when the flames will consume the political establishment as well, and topple the very foundations of Israeli democracy.

About the Author
Prof. Yuval Feldman is a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and a Professor at Bar-Ilan University’s Faculty of Law