Friday, September 01, 2006

The Accusatory State

If you want to know how badly the Lebanon war went for Israel, just consider this: Within three days of the start of hostilities, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Lebanon called for a cease fire. The obvious reason is that Israel had seriously damaged Hezbollah. But when the cease fire came, many Israelis believed that their country had failed. Nasrallah wasn't killed, rockets continued to fall in the North until the cease file came and key objectives weren't achieved. Finger-pointing began immediately and it has become a national phenomenon.

There were failures and mistakes in intelligence, military preparedness and planning, strategy and, most seriously, in the lack of preparedness for the socio-economic consequences of the war to Israelis in the North. Israel did not win the war because there was no war to win. There was the goal to hurt Hezbollah and to punish Lebanon severely for tolerating a terrorist state with a state. That goal was met. With the exception of the Six Day War, since 1948 Israel hasn't won outright any war and that will not change, primarily because of powerful diplomatic constraints. But Israelis aren't satisfied with partial results. There is a childish expectation that Rambo-like Israel can quickly wipe out all of the bad guys.

When this doesn't happen because it cannot, there must be high-powered investigations, fault must be found and heads must roll. There is no guillotine, but the "guilty" must be identified, pilloried and sacked.

If the finger-pointing were limited to major national security events, the practice would be understandable, yet also lamentable because of its overuse. This is not the case. Israel has become an accusatory state, a country engulfed by an endless parade of complaints of real or imagined wrongdoing by public officials in which the instrumentalities of democratic government are ignored. This development is nasty and dangerous because it poisons Israeli life and has the collateral effect of deterring top-flight people from engaging in public service.

The accusatory state has several prongs, with the Supreme Court being the primary architect. In its composition and practices it is sharply anti-democratic. It has usurped the authority to interfere in all matters of public policy, including routine administrative appointments. Accusatory petitions are filed nearly daily, with the court scarcely reflecting on the appropriateness of this activity. The attitude, as expressed by a former Chief Judge, is that the court has to play this role because no one else in government can be trusted.

The accusatory mentality or culture is especially evident in police activity. In large measure because of security needs, Israel's police have a distinctive role. As an apparent trade-off they play a small role in crime prevention or detection. When cars were being stolen wholesale and shipped immediately to Arab chop shops, the police stood idly by. Their response to the epidemic of home burglaries is not any better, a circumstance that results in homeowners putting bars on their windows because they know they cannot rely on the police.

But give the Israeli police the opportunity to investigate public figures and they quickly awake from their lethargy, operating on the principle that those whom they are investigating are guilty until proven innocent. Why the police have this role is a question that isn't asked. Nowadays, they are super-busy investigating loads of officials, from President Moshe Katsav whose presidential residence they raided late at night to lesser personages. In recent days, they netted two big fish, Tsahi Hanegbi, a former government minister, whose alleged crime strikes me as engaging in routine patronage and politics, and Haim Ramon, the Justice Minister, who apparently kissed a woman against her will. It is stupid and dangerous to criminalize what Ramon may have done, which is not to defend him. I assume that the law that criminalizes such behavior applies in its majesty to all who live in Israel. If it is properly enforced, Israel will either have to build many additional penal facilities or perhaps release the Palestinians it is holding to make room for the many others who have committed Ramon's crime.

What is intriguing about the police's determination to promote sexual morality is the blind eye and worse shown toward the well-documented and widespread sexual slavery practiced in Israel, as incredibly and shamefully many women are brutalized, prostituted and sold as property. Surely, we should be thankful for their vigilance in the Ramon matter.

Ordinary Israelis seem to relish the accusatory state, perhaps believing that there is an excess of corruption and maybe also because it relieves some of the tension from living dangerously. They seem not to understand that there is a cost in driving good people away from public service, as well as the poisoning of public life.

It's time for Israel to recognize that for some misjudgments or missteps, civil penalties are usually more appropriate than overkill. It's time for Israel's police force to get into the crime fighting business. It's time for Israel's Supreme Court to get out of the business of having a welcoming mat for all who have accusations to make.

I do not advocate tolerance of wrongdoing, whether financial or sexual. With, I think, the exception of Shimon Peres, over the past twenty years every Prime Minister has been under prolonged investigation, in some instances for possible trivial wrongdoing. Israel's presidents haven't done much better, nor the Chief Rabbis. It's comforting to know that no matter how powerful they may be, wrongdoing is not being tolerated.

The problem is that many of the targets scarcely did wrongs that merit full-fledged criminal investigation. What is the benefit when the police engage in extended trivial pursuits, hounding public officials on trivial charges based on trivial evidence? What is the benefit if the accusatory state continues to grow, as it must and will unless it is checked by a sense of restraint and proportion?