Padded pocket politicians
By all accounts, New York millionaire Morris Talansky cut a sympathetic figure in Jerusalem's District Court on Tuesday. As he described the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash he gave to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert since he first met him in the early 1990s, he convinced his audience that truly the only thing that concerned him was the welfare of the Jewish people.
He melted reporters' hearts with his protestations of pure intentions as he described how he let Olmert use his credit card to pay for luxury hotel suites in the US and fancy vacations in Italy. He never expected, in a million years, to receive any personal benefit from his largesse.
Olmert, you see, was his hero. He worshiped the Jerusalem mayor who covets shiny pens and fancy watches and expensive cigars. He would do anything for him, because as far as Talansky was concerned, a happy Olmert with a Havana between his jaws, a Mont Blanc in his hand and a Rolex on his wrist was good for the Jews.
Talansky cuts a slightly less flattering figure, and shows a slightly less idealistic side of his personality, in a New York courtroom. It was to the US District Court in Manhattan that Talansky and his fellow high rollers turned when they decided to sue Israel Aerospace Industries for its refusal to sell satellite images from Israeli spy satellites to Hugo Chavez's government in Venezuela.
Talansky and his fellow businessmen own a minority share in the Israeli firm ImageSat. IAI is the majority shareholder. ImageSat sells satellite images from Israeli spy satellites to foreign governments. And Talansky - who cares so much about Israel that he stuffed Olmert's pockets with cash for 15 years - and his associates think it is unfair for IAI to refuse to sell those images to Venezuela. The fact that Chavez is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Latin American amigo, they claim, shouldn't affect their ability to make a buck.
But of course, Talansky never wanted anything but the best for Israel - that is for Olmert. And he never expected to receive anything in return for his concern from Israel - that is from Olmert.
Last week Ma'ariv reported that Olmert had contacted an Israeli diplomat in Venezuela and asked him to expedite a proposed $18 million deal between Chavez's government and ImageSat but the Defense Ministry nixed the deal for some inscrutable reason. Olmert, of course, had only the purest of motives. And even if you don't believe that only the good of Israel informed his actions, well, Olmert denied the Ma'ariv report so it's probably all lies, anyway. As for the letter Olmert sent to Colombia's defense minister encouraging him to contract ImageSat for his satellite images, well, it was for the good of the order. It had nothing to do with his envelope man.
Herein lays the problem with the Talansky envelopes: On the one hand we have an American Jewish Zionist who wants only the best for Israel. One the other hand we have an American businessman with links to Israeli defense contractors who thinks that Israel's military concerns shouldn't affect his profit margin.
In both cases we have a prime minister with a penchant for bad judgment on just about every strategic and policy issue that has come across his desk since he came into office. And we have a prime minister who is the subject of five separate corruption probes, who happily stuffed his pockets with Talansky's cash, who revels in decadent, conspicuous consumption, and whose closest aides and colleagues are also subjects of criminal corruption probes or have already been indicted in criminal corruption probes.
In this state of affairs, Israelis are forced to consider the possibility that Olmert may not be making bad policy decisions because he is incompetent, but because bad policy is good for his pocket stuffers. And this is an untenable situation.
It is possible that the Talansky affair may finally sink Olmert and his government. If Haaretz and PR guru Reuven Adler don't succeed in replacing Olmert with his fellow incompetents Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, there is a chance that Israelis may finally have an opportunity to elect a new Knesset and a new government.
But as an early election becomes a more distinct possibility, it is worth considering the connection between the electoral system and the ability of men like Olmert to rise to the pinnacle of Israel's political pyramid. For it is not simply Olmert's political wiles that enabled him to get elected and then stay in office for more than two years despite losing a war, wrecking Israel's strategic alliance with the US and allowing Israel to be attacked with rockets from Gaza. Olmert is a product of Israel's dysfunctional electoral system.
FROM A legal perspective, Israel's electoral system was made for men like Olmert. Over the years, the Knesset has passed draconian laws that limit to nearly nothing the legal contributions that donors can make to political campaigns. At the same time, the Knesset has left in place enormous loopholes that permit politicians to raise almost unlimited funds in unofficial contributions, or "soft money."
As it stands, then, the system favors those who are constitutionally disposed to operate at the edge of the law - that is, people like Olmert.
Since Israel's campaign finance laws were written for angels, and since politicians are mere mortals, most elected officials are vulnerable to scrutiny of their finances. This places the state prosecutors and judges in a position of enormous power over politicians. They know that they can fully expect to find something on everyone if they just look hard enough. And since an indictment suffices to force an elected official from office, the state prosecution has the power to fire elected officials at will.
This wouldn't be too bad if the state prosecution and the judiciary weren't so politicized. But they are. Since justices and prosecutors make no secret of their radical leftist ideological platform, legally challenged politicians like Olmert and former prime minister Ariel Sharon understand that the best way to avoid legal scrutiny is to advance the political agenda of the legal fraternity.
These problems could be remedied easily by legislative action. Were the Knesset to pass laws to reform campaign finance laws, and assert oversight of the state prosecution and the judiciary, many of these problems could be solved. But the Knesset is powerless to act.
As things stand, the Knesset, which is supposed to be the sovereign repository of the people's will, is by far the weakest branch of government. It has no power to place checks or balances on either the judiciary or the government.
The Knesset's relative weakness is a function of Israel's proportional elections system. This system - whereby voters select a party rather than individual candidates at the ballot box - promotes the political fortunes of the corrupt and the weak at the expense of the honest and strong. Similarly, it prolongs the lifespan of coalition governments with a tendency toward corruption and failed policy-making, at the expense of coalition governments informed by principle and the national interest.
Israel's proportional electoral model enables a plethora of parties to be elected in each general election. Inevitably, at least one party gets into the Knesset that has no chance of ever being elected again. In the current Knesset, that party is the Gil Pensioners Party. Once a one-term party's legislators come to terms with the fact that they will never be reelected, they become free-floaters, motivated not by principle but by maximizing their personal gains from their brief political careers. A one-term party's legislators tend to repeatedly sell themselves to other parties bidding for their loyalty throughout their term in office.
Then there are the bloc parties - such as Shas - which have no allegiance to any particular political philosophy but always vote as a disciplined bloc. Back in the day, US president Lyndon B. Johnson defined an "honest politician" as someone who "stays bought." The existence of bloc parties like Shas in Israeli politics encourages politicians to act "dishonestly," from LBJ's perspective.
Like the free-floaters, bloc parties are constantly for sale. Unable to "buy" them outright, coalition leaders are forced to "buy them off" at every critical juncture lest they bolt the government and force the national political leaders to accept early elections. In the case of Shas, every national crisis foments a coalition crisis in which the prime minister is forced to buy Shas's loyalty anew.
IF THE enduring presence of free-floaters and bloc parties tend to corrupt coalition politics, the way that politicians are elected to office tends to corrupt the entire political system.
Party ballots are a blunt instrument for voters. Voters translate their vote into a choice among party leaders. Since there is no direct vote for back-benchers, party leaders are vested with enormous power to determine the identity of Israel's lawmakers. Their preferences are far different from those of the general public.
Unlike the public, political leaders are uninterested in having their parties' back benches populated by leaders informed by their principles. Such back-benchers, after all, have a tendency to revolt against their party leaders when they make unprincipled or bad decisions. This was the case for instance with then-Likud MK Uzi Landau's attempt to block former prime minister Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza.
The party leaders' power to select Israel's legislators ensures that most of the country's lawmakers will be weak, corruptible and controllable. And there is nothing that the public can do about it. And if this weren't bad enough, there is the fact that all MKs are elected from national lists. The absence of electoral districts in Israel means that no lawmakers are in any way accountable to constituents - only to their party leaders and to varying degrees to their party members. Acting against the public will to curry favor with political bosses is the most reasonable course of action for a politician.
It is due to the low quality of lawmakers elected by Israel's dysfunctional system that the Knesset as a body lacks the public legitimacy to enact the sort of electoral and constitutional reforms necessary to clean up politics and check Israel's imperial legal fraternity. And it is also due to the low quality of Israel's lawmakers that the MKs are uninterested in enacting these crucial reforms.
Olmert's pockets full of cash may finally bring about the much awaited political accounting. But until the flaws of Israel's political system are remedied, there can be little doubt that Israelis will continue to wonder whether our leaders make their decisions in good faith or out of allegiance to their pocket padders.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.