Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Election Scandals in Israel Rock "Only Democracy in the Middle East"

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Election Scandals in Israel Rock "Only Democracy in the Middle East"

Article excerpt

Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

It seemed like a scene straight out of the television series "The Sopranos": A group of political insiders gathers at a swank restaurant, owned by a suspected mob family, and is allegedly plied with food, drinks and cash-filled envelopes while considering nominees for plum political posts. After enough drinks and cash are passed around, the restaurant owner's 27-year-old daughter, a law student and part-time waitress, ends up poised to represent her party--and it's feared, her family--in the state legislature.

Forward's Dec. 20 description of the events that led to Inbal Gavrieli's 29th placement in Likud's tainted Dec. 8 primaries--or, as analysts have taken to calling them, "Crimaries."

A series of scandals that rocked the Likud Party eroded Ariel Sharon's seemingly unsure-mountable lead in the country's Jan. 28 elections. Sharon's main opponent, Labor leader Amram Mitzna, described Sharon as a "godfather" running the "family" business. "There is no doubt that organized crime is apparently infiltrating a party, a ruling party," Mitzna said, according to the Forward article cited above.

The Gavrieli family--a frequent target of police investigations--has exerted back-room influence on the Likud Party for years. Their posh restaurant is a favorite meeting place for Likud bosses like Public Security Minister Uzi Landau, his deputy Gideon Ezra, and ministers Danny Naveh and Roni Milo. Israeli voters have to wonder what the Gavrielis did to secure Inbal, an inexperienced waitress, whose two brothers have served prison time for criminal offenses, the 29th placement on Likud's list--above Jerusalem's popular mayor, who only placed 33rd.

Israelis, of course, already know that corruption is rampant in their country, which is home to a powerful criminal underworld. Drug money finances the smuggling of guns and people. Israel's shady diamond industry may even exchange so-called "conflict" diamonds for weapons in the Congo and other African countries. Illegal foreign workers are imported and kept in terrible conditions, and prostitution is a big racket. Over the years, Russian, as well as South and North American Mafia have flourished in Israel. Crooked millionaires, like American fugitive and financier Marc Rich, have gained respectability by making contributions to Israeli universities and institutes.

Israeli banks are a favorite place for international money laundering. British media tycoon Robert Maxwell poured his ill-gotten gains into Israel, before his mysterious death on his yacht in 1992--after his money-laundering and outright thefts became public knowledge.

It should come as no surprise, then, that corruption also is rife in Israel's government. Scandal has always dogged politicians in "the only democracy in the Middle East." Perhaps because they now take it for granted, allegations of corruption never have much of a long-term impact on Israeli voters.

Sharon's predecessors also were embroiled in funding irregularities or corruption scandals. Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, always were up to their necks in charges and investigations, only to emerge unscathed, ready to run again. Ehud Barak remains enmeshed in a scandal involving shell companies that poured foreign funds into his election campaign. In 1977, allegations of corruption were instrumental in the late Yitzhak Rabin's fall from power.

Analysts lose count of the scandals Prime Minister Sharon has faced over the years. His most recent troubles began in mid-December, when several Likud candidates defeated in the Dec. 8 primaries went public with stories of having been approached by "vote contractors" offering to deliver votes in return for cash. Members of the Likud Central Committee, the 2,940-member body that chooses who has what position on Likud's candidate list, were accused of selling their votes to potential candidates for as little as $200 and as much as $70,000 to ensure a "safe Knesset seat. …

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