Muckraking won’t decide Israel’s election

Despite headlines to the contrary – and falling opinion ratings, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may not have too much cause for concern over this week’s revelations that a long-time friend, South African textile tycoon Cyril Kern, made a low-interest loan to son Gilad Sharon to pay back illegal foreign contributions to the Likud leader’s 1999 primaries campaign.
Even if Sharon was guilty of wrongdoing – which he is not — the average Israeli knows that corruption is rampant in Israeli society and is more concerned with Palestinian suicide bombings that have turned life in the Jewish state into a Russian roulette.
The bottom line is that Kern, a foreign volunteer who served under Sharon in the War of Independence, has no financial interests in Israel. Kern has no need for any business favors in return for helping a friend he has known for more than 50 years.
Sharon’s main opponent in the January 28 ballot, Labor leader Amram Mitzna, has demanded the prime minister resign or make a full public accounting. Mitzna had already latched on to the vote-buying scandal in the December primary election in the prime minister’s Likud party to hurl some headline-grabbing abuse that should not have been uttered by a politician with even a smidgen of self-respect.
Sharon, Mitzna said, is a “godfather” running the “family” business. In other words, it’s the mafia.
Israel’s media have been eager to pounce on any connection between politicians and businessmen as proof that organized crime has penetrated the country’s political institutions.
Self-righteous columnists like to write that such things cannot happen in a real democracy where the rule of law is supreme, such as the United States. The reality, of course, is that U.S. leaders have been in bed with big business for decades.
By focusing on so-called election scandals, Israeli media are missing the real picture: corruption and a real criminal underworld do exist in Israel but it is all being swept under the table while the dirt is being dished elsewhere.
Here’s a short list of the real criminal problems facing the Jewish state:
A. Half a million illegal foreign workers have flocked to tiny Israel; senior politicians from both big parties, Likud and Labor, are involved.
B. White slavery has become a fat cash cow.
C. Drugs are everywhere, but only national police chief Shlomo Aharonishky seems to be concerned. Drugs are rampant at raves and private parties. The Green Leaf party, which advocates legalizing marijuana, could make it into parliament this time. No one is dealing seriously with the problem of drug pushers, focusing instead on the ridiculous question of whether drug use should be allowed.
Alarm bells should be sounding over the use of drug money to finance the smuggling of guns and people. Some of the proceeds are being used to underwrite terrorist activities.
E. Mafia money is being laundered in Israel, in some cases by Palestinian intermediaries. Suspicions have arisen that Israelis are involved.
F. Bribery is everywhere; it is impossible to promote development or other business projects without payoffs, including sexual favors.
Israel has long been a mafia melting pot.
In the 1960s, American Jews linked to the U.S. mafia tried to buy positions of power and influence in Israel. They forged ties with senior politicians, including several prime ministers who have since passed away, and by depositing funds in Israeli banks. In a failed bid to gain respectability and legitimacy, they made large contributions to Israeli universities and scientific research institutes. Handsome buildings dotting Israeli campuses are their legacy.
It was the turn of the South American mafia in the 1970s. It tried to launder large sums of money through Israeli banks, but steered clear of any serious attempt to buy political influence. In the end, the Spanish-speaking Mafioso gave up and most left the country.
Globalization was the catchphrase in the 1980s. A new class of international criminal tycoons appeared in Israel. Jewish robber barons such as the legendary British media tycoon Robert Maxwell poured money into Israel. He bought the country’s second-largest newspaper, Maariv. It is now common knowledge that “Captain Bob’s” media interests were just a front for one of the biggest money-laundering and theft operations committed by a single man in the second half of the 20th century. His so-called suicide leap off his yacht in 1992 was actually murder, the work of several people who pushed him to his death for stealing their money. After Maxwell’s death, news of his strange friendships with then Israeli president Haim Herzog and former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was buried; his employment of Yosef Lapid, a former Maariv columnist, as head of the Maxwell press ventures in E. Europe, forgotten.
Lapid eventually owned up that he and other journalists should have known about or exposed Maxwell’s real dealings. A decade later, Lapid, as head of the Shinui (Change) list, is running on a cleanup the sleaze ticket.
In the 1990s, elements linked to mafia in Russia and other former states of the Soviet Union tried to penetrate the center of the Israeli political system. But their efforts were largely unsuccessful.
It is now the Palestinians’ turn. Since he and his henchmen returned to the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the 1993 Oslo accords, Yasser Arafat has been trying to establish links with Israeli businessmen, some of whom hold political office or influence, through his wide-ranging financial interests in Europe and South America and the casino project in Jericho.
A small number of courageous Israelis, such as defense minister Shaul Mofaz and army chief of staff Moshe Yaalon, have managed to block these attempts and keep the Jericho gambling den closed. And here is where there is a big light at the end of the tunnel.
Despite their attempts to buy their way to the top and eagerness on the part of Israeli banks to accept their money, mafia kingpins have failed to achieve political influence in Israel.
Most of the crooked millionaires who came here — Americans, Argentines, Mexicans, Britons, Swiss, Russians, Poles and Palestinians – have left the country and taken their money elsewhere.
And yet, “corruption” has become a leitmotif of Israeli prime ministerial politics. Shimon Peres used the campaign slogan: “Corruption, out!” Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sarah, became caught up in countless corruption scandals and investigations, but emerged unscathed. Ehud Barak is still involved in a scandal centering on shell companies that poured foreign money into his election campaign. Now Sharon is embroiled in a similar affair.
A candidate who can prove he is “clean” has a definite edge over the competition.
By focusing on corruption, Mitzna and Labor secretary general Ofer Pines are running a muckraking campaign of the basest kind. They won’t win; some of the mud they are slinging will end up sticking to them.
The Likud, meanwhile, has launched a counter-offensive to staunch potential electoral damage from the affair. Likud campaign chief of staff Ehud Olmert said Wednesday: “It`s already clear to many that this whole story is a baseless bubble, and nothing in it can link the prime minister in any way to something untoward.”
Those close to Sharon are convinced that certain elements in the police and Attorney-General’s office leaked news of Kern’s loan in a bid to ensure his defeat at the polls. To clear his office of the charges, Attorney General Eliyakim Rubinstein announced Wednesday, January 8, that the police probe into the loan would take place only after the January 28 election – which brought a torrent of abuse down on his head from the quarters that leaked the story in the first place.
Meanwhile, Kern has begun to express his own frustration at the way the story is playing out in Israel.
Speaking to Army Radio, Kern said of Sharon was a victim of character assassination.
“I was very happy to help. It`s what anybody would do for a friend. I`m just very, very sorry that in Israel, everybody`s being so destabilizing at a time when you should be united,” he said.

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