Page last updated at 13:21 GMT, Monday, 24 September 2007 14:21 UK

Israel faces corruption 'epidemic'

By Martin Patience
BBC News

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Ehud Olmert's tenure as PM has been overshadowed by controversy
The latest scandals to hit the Israeli political establishment are just two examples in a long line that have recently rocked Israeli political and public life.

The Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, is to face a police investigation into a house purchase in which he is alleged to have bought a house in Jerusalem at a price that was significantly below the true market value.

Separately he also faces allegations over the sale of Leumi bank in 2005 and the head of the Israeli Tax Authority, a top aide to Mr Olmert, and several others were arrested as part of a police investigation into possible bribery.

Meanwhile, Israel's ex-President Moshe Katsav struck a plea bargain with the attorney general to avoid rape charges. Under the bargain, he is due to be charged with lesser sexual offences and faces a suspended sentence.

Corruption scandals are part of the fabric of Israeli political history.

One factor in the Labour Party losing the election in 1977, after almost 30 years in power, was the feeling among the population that it was corrupt.

Famously, the party's leader, Yitzhak Rabin, resigned the same year after it was discovered that his wife held an illegal bank account.

New heights

More recently, Israeli prime ministers such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon have faced investigations, although none of them were ever charged with wrongdoing.

Israeli political cartoon
Mr Olmert has been implicated in an alleged real estate scandal
The allegations, however, tarnished their premierships.

But with the spate of recent allegations there is now a feeling among the Israeli public that corruption is scaling new heights.

Ten years ago, Israel was listed 10th in an honesty league compiled by Transparency International, an anti-corruption group based in Berlin. It has now fallen to 34th place.

"I am very worried about what I see," says Daniel Kayros, an attorney with the advocacy group Movement for Quality Governance in Israel.

A politician can easily forget whose interests he is representing
Daniel Kayros,
Movement for Quality Governance in Israel

"The corruption we are facing now is terrible. It's almost at an epidemic level."

Mr Kayros points to the Israeli electoral system of proportional representation as perhaps being more vulnerable to corruption that other forms of government.

"Often the level of accountability between a politician and his people that voted him in is not there," says Mr Kayros. "A politician can easily forget whose interests he is representing."

Blurred lines

Mr Kayros also says that Israel's continued conflict with the Palestinians and some of its neighbours means that other issues - such as tackling corruption - take a back seat.

"You may be committed to other social issues but in this country the security issues trump everything," he says.

Israeli soldier in the occupied Palestinian territories
Security, not public probity, is at the top of most voters' agendas
"It's very clear in democracy you get what you vote for and tackling corruption isn't a major issue here."

With it being almost impossible to gauge the level of corruption in society, some experts argue that the Israeli police are just becoming more successful at tackling corruption, which explains the recent spate of cases.

But more needs to be done on the issue, says Prof Asher Arian, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

"The lines are very blurred as to what is and isn't corruption in some cases," he says. "The Israeli judiciary needs to tighten up on these laws."

With the issue of corruption dominating Israeli newspapers and airwaves, Mr Kayros sees one silver lining: the issue is being highlighted.

During the last Israeli election all the leaders of the major parties signed a petition pledging to fight corruption.

"I'm not naive," says Mr Kayros. "But it's a good start to begin tackling the problem."

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