June 15, 2011 | New York Post

The Virtue of Scandal

Israel's Neighbors Should Be So Lucky

Scandal is on the boil in Israel, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert beset by calls for his resignation over allegations of corruption.

Highlighting Israel's history of such ructions, the Associated Press this week put out a scorecard headlined “Previous Israeli political scandals,” listing 11 cases going back to 1977, covering everything from convictions for bribery and sexual assault to resignations under suspicion of crony favoritism and campaign-finance irregularities. It's a handy crib sheet for anyone seeking a pretext to trash Israel.

Except they'd be so wrong: The upside of this list of dirty laundry is the extent to which Israel, to a degree undreamed of elsewhere in the Middle East, digs up and airs out suspect behavior by its politicians, runs it through the process of law and deals with it in peaceful, democratic fashion – including, in some cases, the resignation or even jailing of politicians found to have abused the public trust.

That might help explain the annual rankings of the Corruption Perceptions Index, released by Berlin-based Transparency International: Israel, with all its scandals, routinely figures as far less corrupt than any of its neighbors.

In the latest ranking of 179 countries, from best to worst, Israel rates 30th from the top, just below Portugal. By contrast, Jordan comes in at 53, Lebanon at 99 and Egypt at 103. Syria sits way down at 138.

Israel's scandals include the recent conviction and jailing for campaign-funding violations of Omri Sharon, a son of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. No such penalties among the political class of such Israeli neighbors as Syria, Egypt and Jordan have made headlines – because none of them has similarly serious election campaigns to begin with.

In Syria, President Bashar Assad took over the totalitarian Baathist apparatus when his father died eight years ago, and that's that. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has ruled for the last 27 years; his son is now heir apparent – and Egyptian prosecutors aren't known for delving into the financial dimensions of this arrangement.

The Israeli scandal list also includes “Olmert ally Haim Ramon,” convicted in March 2007 of “forcibly kissing a female soldier.” For this, Ramon served a light sentence and then returned to Olmert's Cabinet. Not nice.

But as sleaze goes, it's not even in the same universe as Palestinian officials who advance their careers by pouring resources into camps, schools and broadcasts that indoctrinate Palestinians (including women and children) into a terrorist death cult that exalts bombers who blow themselves up in order to maim and murder.

Then there's the Israeli scandal of 1977, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin resigned when it came out that his wife had an illegal foreign-currency account in America. Fair enough. So when do the Palestinians delve into, disclose and run through due process the arrangements (banking and otherwise) that sustained the lavish living arrangements of the late Yasser Arafat's wife, Suha? Or the backroom finances of Arafat himself? When do we see orderly financial disclosure by Hamas' ringleaders?

But it's unfair to contrast Israel only with the Palestinians. When was the last time the Saudi royal family opened its accounts for scrutiny by the average Saudi citizen?

When were the mullahs of Iran last held to account for their personal banking arrangements, or required to defend in open debate the use of huge sums of state money to bankroll not a better life for Iranians but weapons for Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon?

Israel is now seeing plenty of political sniping, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak demanding that Olmert step down. That's a far remove from the gun battles with which the Palestinian henchmen of Hamas and Fatah addressed their differences last year.

None of this is meant to dismiss the corrosive effects of corruption in any country, Israel included. In the Olmert probe (still under way), disturbing accounts emerged this month of court testimony in Israel in which a US businessman described giving Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash.

Olmert has said he did nothing wrong and expects to be cleared. But, however the process plays out, it's one in which politicians are held accountable to the people and no one is deemed to be above the law.

One has to wonder if in the despotisms of the Middle East and beyond, there aren't a great many people who, given even the whisper of a chance, would welcome a similar system – scandals and all.

Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, heads its Investigative Reporting Project.

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