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In Israel, ‘politics’ is not politics as usual

Shoshana Kordova
November 05, 2010
(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)
(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

Israelispeak is the way Israelis and the Israeli media use Hebrew. Behind the literal meaning, there’s an additional web of suggestion, doublespeak, and cultural innuendo that too often gets lost in translation. Every Friday, we reveal what is really being said.

Israel is more corrupt than two-thirds of the other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, compiled by anti-corruption group Transparency International, found that Israel fared better than fellow OECD countries Portugal, Hungary, and Turkey, but worse than Chile and Slovenia. “The list of corruption investigations in Israel in recent years reads like a Who’s Who of the political elite,” writes the Los Angeles Times. “It includes every prime minister of the last 14 years, two previous presidents, two past Jerusalem mayors, numerous Cabinet ministers and one recently convicted felon who is still serving in the Knesset, or parliament.”

That “politics” and “corruption” often go hand-in-hand in Israel can be seen even in the way Israelis use the word “politi,” the Hebraicized equivalent of “political.” The word generally signals that the subject is domestic politics, political infighting, corruption, or all of the above.

Perhaps the best example of the use of the word “politi” to refer to corruption has to do with the convicted felon whom the L.A. Times is alluding to: Tzachi Hanegbi, a former official who held several different ministerial posts in three different governments and has been accused of making dozens of “minuyim politi’im,” or political appointments. Here, the use of the Hebrew word for “political” to describe the appointments seems to imply unethical or illegal behavior.

Although many politicians are thought to engage in cronyism, Hanegbi was particularly brazen. A Likud campaign ad for the 2002 party primary was headlined “News flash—Minister Tzachi Hanegbi holds the national record for appointing Likud members,” and listed the names of 75 Likud members it said Hanegbi had appointed to the Environment Ministry, which he headed at the time. At the bottom of the ad, Hanegbi, who has since crossed over from Likud to Kadima, was quoted as saying: “I confess to the charge.”

But despite the admission, the court decided—in the country’s first trial over minuyim politi’im—that such appointments were not a crime before October 2004, when the attorney general officially prohibited them. Hanegbi was acquitted of the cronyism charges but convicted of perjury related to his testimony about the Likud ad.

If Hanegbi is found guilty of moral turpitude during sentencing next week, he will be forced to retire from the Knesset, where he has served since 1988, but his legacy won’t be quickly forgotten. Not just because so many people probably still hold the jobs he handed out so liberally, but also because his name appears on a special section of the Knesset Website: A dynasty section it calls “Family Ties Between Knesset Members,” which features 70 pairs of family members, like Hanegbi and his mother, Geula Cohen, who have served in the Knesset.

Lest you think the conviction has made Hanegbi a pariah among his fellow politicians, or politika’im, shortly after his conviction, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Navon, Israel’s fifth president, asked the court not to find Hanegbi guilty of moral turpitude—and Kadima activists floated the idea that Hanegbi was the perfect person to lead their, er, political party.

Shoshana Kordova is an editor and translator at the English edition of Haaretz. She grew up in New Jersey and has lived in Israel since 2001.

Shoshana Kordova is an editor and translator at the English edition of Haaretz. She grew up in New Jersey and has been living in Israel since 2001.