Scandals have many Israelis in despair

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- If President Bush worries about his sagging popularity, he might take a look at Israel to remind himself that his troubles could be worse. Far worse.

Top government and military leaders in the Jewish state are engulfed in an unprecedented wave of political, sexual and criminal scandals that has deeply eroded public confidence in the government and left many Israelis concerned about the country's apparent moral decline.

Last week, Israel's attorney general said he was prepared to indict President Moshe Katsav on criminal charges including rape, sexual harassment, abuse of power and fraud. Israel's parliament approved Katsav's request for a leave of absence on Thursday amid growing calls for his resignation. Katsav maintains that he is innocent.

Although Katsav plays primarily a ceremonial role in Israeli politics, the accusations against him - stemming from complaints made by four former female employees - have further damaged the image of Israel's government. Police are investigating Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for alleged corruption. His secretary is under house arrest, accused of taking bribes as part of a tax scandal. His former justice minister is facing trial on sexual harassment charges, accused of kissing a government employee against her will. His army chief of staff quit this month over failings during Israel's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last year.

None of these scandals threatens to lead to the immediate collapse of Olmert's ruling coalition. Political scandals and corruption allegations, after all, are nothing new in Israel. But the accumulation of investigations of top-level government officials has many Israelis despairing over the state of their nation and its failure to produce a new generation of strong, ideological leaders.

"Israel no longer appears as a flourishing high-tech power, and not even as a cruel occupying power. It appears as something completely different: A country that is dysfunctional and in decline," columnist Sever Plocker wrote in the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

The shortage of trusted leaders in Israel was the focus of a Haaretz daily newspaper political cartoon last week that pictured Olmert announcing his choice for a new army chief of staff as "a person who has a proven track record and who can rebuild the public's faith." Stepping toward the podium is Shahar Peer, a 19-year-old Israeli tennis player who became a darling of the Israeli news media after advancing last week to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open.

This is not the first time an Israeli prime minister has been embattled by scandals. Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu all faced investigations, although none was ever charged with any wrongdoing.

Likewise, Ezer Weizman, Katsav's predecessor, left the Israeli presidency early after the attorney general found that he had accepted improper gifts. He was never charged with a crime.

Still, there is a widespread feeling that the public's disgust with its leaders has reached new levels. Once celebrated for their high level of participation in elections, Israelis have drifted away from the polls in recent elections. In last year's legislative election, about 64 percent of eligible voters went to the polls - the worst turnout in Israeli history.

"We know that people are disappointed with their leadership and have been for a long period of time," says Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But while the amount of political turmoil might be discouraging for the Israeli public, not all Israelis believe it's a bad thing. It might not mean that the country has more corrupt politicians, but rather that authorities are better at a catching them.

"There's a very serious problem that we have faulty leadership now because a lot of the people in these key positions are not worthy of them," said Tzruya Luzon, an attorney for the Movement for Quality Government, an Israeli government watchdog group.

That citizens and law enforcement officers are more aware and concerned with these problems, however, "may be on the whole a positive direction, even though now we're in a difficult stage," Luzon said.

A huge void was left in Israeli politics by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who fell into a coma after a debilitating stroke last year. A war hero and hawk, Sharon led the successful evacuation of the Gaza settlement, winning him widespread popularity both at home and abroad.

But Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem and attorney with little military experience, has struggled to win the confidence of the Israeli public. Olmert angered many Israelis for throwing the country into a deadly and costly war with Hezbollah last summer that failed to either win release of kidnapped soldiers or crush Hezbollah, as he had promised.

Then the scandals followed. Israel's state comptroller began examining the terms of Olmert's purchase of an apartment in Jerusalem in 2004 for $1.2 million. This month, the state comptroller opened a criminal investigation into Olmert's role in the sale of one of Israel's largest banks in 2005, when he was finance minister, accusing him of favoring his friends. Olmert's role in the war with Hezbollah is also under examination by a government committee.

Olmert denies any wrongdoing, and his ruling coalition is strong enough that he doesn't need to worry about a collapse of his government, analysts say. But that has not helped reduce the damage to his office. A poll released on Friday found that 74 percent of Israelis think Olmert should resign.

Israelis have also registered their outrage with Katsav, and there is a strong desire to clean house. According to a poll taken by Yedioth Ahronoth, 71 percent of Israelis believe Katsav should resign immediately. The same poll found that the most popular candidate to replace him is Vice Premier Shimon Peres, whom Olmert is backing for the post if Katsav's departure is permanent.

But others go further, arguing that Israel should eliminate the office of president altogether.

"The symbol of the country has been covered with a big, ugly and foul-smelling stain. But even when Katsav is replaced by another politician, the effect will only be to perpetuate the existence of a superfluous institution," wrote Aluff Benn, a columnist for Haaretz. "Supporters of the institution of the presidency claim that the job expresses the unity of the nation, beyond the political power struggles. That sounds good in political science seminars and in citizenship lessons, but what exactly has the presidency contributed to national unity and to mending the rifts in Israeli society?"

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