Saturday, April 19, 1997

The Bar-on Affair

If you were a perfectly innocent observer, you might believe that the media and the law enforcement agencies (the police and the public prosecutor) are out to find and indict politicians whose lack of scruples allowed them to trespass beyond the limits of legitimate political bargaining and compromise. In short, by appointing the wrong person for the wrong reasons they had violated the law, mainly that prohibition which deals with the violation of public trust.
The strangest thing about the whole scandal is that even if you believe the worst allegations being thrown around, it is hard to discern any serious criminal action. After all is said and done, we are talking about a political appointment. If the maneuvering surrounding the Bar-on appointment can be defined as criminal, then much of the workings of Israeli government up till now can be faulted as such. The point is that though many of these actions are reprehensible or worthy of censure, there is something arbitrary in a mechanism that can decide to select any single set of actions in order to place them under the glare of a microscope and then proceed to reclassify them, thus transforming the usual disgusting and immoral coalition chicanery into criminal actions indictable in a court of law.
There is also something undemocratic and dangerously so, in allowing the investigative arms of the regime to become the sole arbiters of political propriety. In some senses, much of this is unavoidable. However, the common-knowledge, folk wisdom that all politicians are crooks and that bringing in the cops will help keep them in line, may end up alienating the public from democratic coalition government. It will create a tendency to introduce rules of the game that are appropriate for military -administrative bureaucracies or vaunted dictatorships where the police rule us directly, without benefit of any political mediation….
Deri, the Arch-Criminal
Aryeh Deri, as the officially recognized disciple of the Rav Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, has had a meteoric career in which he succeeded in maximizing the advantages for his party that could be realized by using its perennial swing vote status. Shas, under his leadership, became a new power center in Israeli politics which considers political power basically an instrument for building those institutions associated with its religious and educational mission. In this, they merely continue in the best tradition of Israeli politics. It may be that Deri was caught with his fingers in the cookie jar, but all the signs indicate that he merely exaggerated in using governmental clout to help his movement to repair past discrimination. Nothing to brag about, but certainly nothing to shame him or cause him discomfort in his own movement. If Deri is found guilty of graft at the end of his current (six-year long) court case it will be a result of somebody having moved the goal posts (a shift in the acceptability of certain norms) , and not because this is one of those classic cases of corruption for personal benefit.
The former Attorney-General, Michael Ben Yair who is supposed to act with restraint regarding still-active files previously under his direct responsibility insulted Deri personally a week or so after the Bar-On case hit the media. He complained bitterly that Deri had the nerve to harass the public and public opinion for years. This strange comment was totally unwarranted and smacked precisely of the kind of discrimination that Deri claims has motivated much of the legal action against him. Deri, the “clever Misrakhi upstart has annoyed many in the Israeli elite by putting up a strong legal battle and by leading his party to new electoral successes, while sitting there in the dock. Deri, moreover, is considered a legitimate butt of media humor and constantly portrayed as the prototype of the sleazy, corrupt politician who can get away with anything while we poor mortals have to obey all the laws. Indeed, if Israel had a jury system, one could argue with great justification that Aryeh Deri could not get a fair trial in this country. And if you believe that judges are human - you may be concerned that the incessant media portrayal of Deri as a wily, cocksure, crook may indeed harm his chances for a fair trial.
The media have to be defended because they are under attack by Bibi and Co. and they are indeed one of the main obstacles to dictatorial tendencies. But the media, as a whole, have a poor track record on the major stories of the era. They have led in the demonization of the Arab “enemy,” presented a totally one-sided analysis of the issues involved in the conflict and the peace process; they have been especially weak in matters connected to labor struggles and defense of social and welfare rights. These weaknesses contradict the right-wing hysteria to the effect that the media are in the hands of the “left-wing Mafia,” and the efforts by the media to live down these spurious charges simply confirm the value and the success of campaigns based on a “big-lie.”
There is every reason to believe in the sincerity of the journalists who broke the Bar-on story, but one cannot fail to be uncomfortable about the fact that it is commonly believed that neither of the two chief charges in the original report has been substantiated after weeks of intensive investigations. Moreover, it should be stated that the search for deadline sensations exposes journalists to all kinds of manipulation and weakens the prestige of the media - all in the name of commercial competition.
I admit to not being overly concerned about being fair to Bibi and his colleagues who are, at any rate, are all employing first-rate legal talent to protect their interests. I am concerned about diverting energy and public vigilance from the political realm - in this critical period - to the realm of juridical complexities. I am concerned over the possibilities of a reaction against the media and the legal system, when it becomes clear that the subject matter of the investigation is in the gray area between immorality and illegality - and the real dangers stemming from current government policies are ignored or underestimated. I simply do not believe that the media and or the legal system will do our work for us and replace this government with a better one simply because most of the people involved in the Bar-on appointment have never, in their political life, experienced anything like a moral impulse - of the weakest intensity.