While Arab autocrats and monarchs try to violently crush their rebellious streets, the fate of an Israeli former president was solemnly determined in a Tel Aviv courtroom this week. Moshe Katsav, who held the distinguished – if mostly ceremonial – position from 2000 to 2007, was sentenced to seven years in prison for raping an employee and harassing two other staff. The judges dismissed his lawyers’ request, and said that Katsav’s position was no reason for leniency.
Echoing a widespread feeling towards the sentencing and the four-year long drama that preceded it, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a day of sadness” for Israel, but also “a day of deep appreciation and pride for the Israeli justice system”. Praising the strength of Israel’s civic society and of its judiciary, the daily Israel Hayom wrote: “The most important flag that was raised in court was that of equality before the law. Nobody is privileged – not the president, not the prime minister and not members of parliament. All are equal.”
Many see Katsav’s conviction as a sign of a robust democracy. But some are concerned – is it too robust? A list of Israeli politicians who have been interrogated or put on trial in the last decade includes three prime ministers, one finance minister, one justice minister and a few junior ministers. Mayors have become frequent visitors in questioning rooms and the designated Israeli Defence Force (IDF) chief-of-staff had to give up his nomination just two months ago because of corruption allegations.
While many were clear cases of corruption, some political analysts believe there is a growing “corruption frenzy” which undermines the public’s trust in their politicians and harms the government’s ability to govern.
Yossi Shain, professor of political science and head of the Harold Hartog School of Government at Tel Aviv University, says that the aggressive rhetoric in Israel directed at politicians over the issue of corruption has become unrestrained and has turned into a dangerous obsession.
“The danger is the belittling of politics and of politicians,” says Shain, “and the weakening of the whole political system. All politicians are considered to be outright corrupt – legal advisers become the most important people and decisions are just not being taken.” Despite the premise of promoting the interests of the citizens, says Shain, this culture of “politician bashing” is actually counter-productive. “We need to upgrade politics, instead of constantly downgrading it,” he says. “Instead of constantly dealing with their expenses, we should ensure high salaries in order to attract the best people. Politician should not be a derogatory word.”