Tuesday, May 13, 2014

To Stop The Next Olmert, Open Israel's Closed-List System

Today a Tel Aviv district court sentenced Ehud Olmert, Israel's Prime Minister from 2006 to 2009, to six years in prison for bribery. The sentence was the minimum requested by the prosecution but Olmert's adviser described it as "unjust" and harsh. On top of this charge, Olmert was also convicted in July 2012 of a "breach of trust" and fined $19,000 for abusing public funds. To stop the next Olmert, the Government of Israel will need to change the structures of government that incentivize illegal behavior.

That Olmert, then the Mayor of Jerusalem, would accept $160,000 in bribes in exchange for signing off on the Holyland apartment project speaks to a deeply flawed element of governance in Israel. At a time when some Israelis struggle to pay rent, it is shameful that some officials not only fail to rectify corruption and money laundering but participate in it. Olmert is not the first Prime Minister to be involved in such scandals. Israel's current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was accused of influence peddling in 1997 when he appointed an attorney general who would go easy on one of his political allies. In 1999 he was accused of corruption for $100,000 worth of free services from a government contractor and another $100,000 worth of state gifts which he kept for himself. The phenomenon is not new, as Dr. Michael Widlanski argued on The Algemeiner website in 2012. In 1977, Yitzhak Rabin (then the Prime Minister) was fined 100,000 NIS for having a joint bank account with his wife in the United States even though such accounts were illegal for Israeli citizens.

The most recent sentencing highlights the way leaders in Israel can become insulated from reality. Conviction after conviction, prominent politicians continue corrupt practices and believe they will not get caught. Israel's closed-list voting system allows politicians to become comfortable with their power, making corruption seem like a lower risk than it really is. Further democratizing the party-list system would be one way to combat this sense of false comfort. It would not only reduce corruption but also would bring fresh ideas and energy to some of Israel's most intractable challenges. Like campaign finance reform in the US, there are structural obstacles to executing this change. However, such a shift might be the key to saving the Israeli public hundreds of thousands of tax dollars and preserving Israel's reputation as an accountable and open society.

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