Corruption 'Worst Existential Threat' Facing Israel, Analyst Says

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel is facing an "existential threat" worse than Iran's nuclear weapons, an analyst here said. That threat is corruption on the part of Israel's leaders.

Government officials from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the head of Israel's income tax authority and many others have come under police investigation for various charges ranging from corruption to sex scandals over the last year.

State Attorney Eran Shendar on Tuesday ordered police to open a criminal investigation into allegations that Olmert intervened on behalf of two friends (including an American businessman) in the privatization of Israel's Bank Leumi (National Bank) while he served as acting finance minister.

Olmert's office said he would cooperate with the investigation and would be exonerated.

Two weeks ago police began questioning members of the tax authority, including its director, and a senior staff member in the prime minister's office following allegations of bribery, fraud, illegal appointments and breach of the public trust.

Michael Oren, senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, said the internal corruption is a "real problem" for Israel.

"The most serious existential threat in my mind - worse than Iran - is corruption," Oren told Cybercast News Service prior to the most recent investigation against the prime minister.

Oren, who served as a reservist in southern Lebanon during last summer's war between Israel and Hizballah, said the corruption has even penetrated the army.

Units arrived at the front without ammunition, said Oren. "I got a gun that fell apart in my hands."

At one point he said he received a box of uniforms, but when he opened the carton it was full of rags full of axle grease. Someone is signing the papers saying that there are x-number of uniforms or rations at a certain place and then they are being sold elsewhere, he said.

As a country that heavily relies on its army for daily protection and defense, Israel can't survive if the army is corrupt, said Oren.

"That's what I mean by corruption being an existential threat. We will die from the corruption," he said.

A recent opinion poll indicated that nearly 85 percent of Israelis think that Israel's leadership is corrupt. Ninety-four percent said they believed that corruption weakens the state and 71 percent said corrupt leadership breeds a corrupt public.

Question of trust

Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute said that calling corruption an "existential threat" was blowing it out of proportion.

The real threat is not the corruption itself but the fact that the public is losing its trust in democracy and its leaders, Dromi said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

Law enforcement agencies are dealing more aggressively with corruption than they did in the past, said Dromi. It's no longer hidden "behind closed doors," he said. People are more aware of it now, and they are angry because it's so blatant, he added.

In the past there was a perception among the Israeli public that their leaders were working for the good of the people - not using power just to make themselves rich, Dromi said.

Oren said he believes the situation has grown worse over time. He mentioned that Israel's founders handled hundreds of millions of dollars - and they all died penniless.

Oren said the first thing that needs to be done is to educate the public about what constitutes corruption and establish norms of "public morality."

Dromi predicted an eventual shakeup of the political system, following the resolution of multiple ongoing corruption investigations.

Accountant-General Yaron Zeleka, who is the finance ministry's "whistle blower" on corrupt officials, said earlier this week that the situation in Israel is "severe."

Zeleka, whose family and home were put under police protection this week after they received threatening phone calls, said he's "optimistic" nevertheless.

"Now everything is on the table and out in the open and we can deal with the problems," Zeleka was quoted as saying at a lecture this week.

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