The former chief justice of Israel, Aharon Barak, compared the raft of Bills that the new Benjamin Netanyahu government wants to introduce and enact as laws to a “tank putsch”, in a recent interview. According to Barak, couched in legalese, these Bills, once passed, would further open doors for endless corruption both by the government and Knesset (parliament) members.

Across the democratic world, the nature of corruption has changed constantly to escape scrutiny. But when it is exposed, it is bound to be dealt with legally. On the other hand, in undemocratic states – lacking independent courts, prosecution, police and media, as well as minimal defence of rights to equality and freedom of expression and information – corruption is institutionalised and an integral part of the ‘governing’ system.

Corruption becomes necessary in undemocratic regimes both for personal material gain and for ensuring the eternal stability of the regime itself, through the creation of personal interests to prevent any change to existing the political, economic, and military establishments. The future of each of these elites is tied to the stability of the existing regime.

In order to avoid international sanctions, most undemocratic states in the world maintain at least a veneer of democracy, through a hollow shell of democratic components. They maintain courts (not independent and partly corrupt in themselves); they seemingly allow an active press (owned by the ruling party or people close to the regime’s seniors); they conduct periodic elections from time to time (fake, or through voting systems changed by law according to the regime needs; or annulling the participation of opposition parties and candidates; or by disrupting proper voting in opposition regions physically and by means of disseminating “fake news”); and a certain activity of other political parties is made possible (satellite parties, not really independent ones). Some of these states even have a relatively progressive constitution (bypassed when it comes to security, war on terror and repeated declarations of states of emergency).

Although such exercises are merely hollow in nature, these seeming democratic components still create anxiety among those in power that the opposition might at some point organise and constitute a real threat, or that a certain group within the regime would split and try to replace those now glued to their positions. Thus, massive corruption helps undemocratic regimes deal with this existential paranoia.

Encouraging corruption through legal means

Corruption does not necessarily mean just cash envelopes of which former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was convicted, or champagne and cigars and favourable media coverage of which present Prime Minister Netanyahu is now indicted.

The big money in the world of corruption is present in the bias of tenders and contractual bonds with government offices, government firms and public bodies, as well as job handouts, licensing and public resource allocation to supporters of the ruling party and persons close to power. This is true of many states, from Yoweri Museveni’s dictatorship in Uganda (144th place out of 180 on the corruption scale of Transparency International), through the military dictatorship in Myanmar (140th place on the same scale), to the regime of Viktor Orban in Hungary (73rd place in the same scale).

In Uganda, for example, corruption takes place not just by stealing revenue from the state coffers and international financial and humanitarian aid but bureaucratically as well. When Museveni took captured power in 1986, there were 32 districts in Uganda. By 2018, 121 districts were created, and each of the new ones served Museveni as an excuse to hand out jobs and money to his supporters, with the excuse that it was necessary for running new districts, as well as handing out jobs in the capital, Kampala, to representatives of a particular district.

Such thinking is prevalent not just in distant, overseas states. A person in Israel hearing the declarations of members of the Knesset and ministers about their plans does understand the real meaning of such plans regarding human rights as well as their relevance regarding corruption.

Thus, for example, unlike the false campaign that the Netanyahu government has been running wherein legal advisers in government ministries are a sort of “fifth column” busy infiltrating progressive and Leftist content, most of the daily business of these advisers is to supervise each ministry to ensure that they are run in accordance with the law in terms of contractual bonds, tenders, allocation of budgets and resources, and the use of manpower.

When the Netanyahu government promotes a Bill by which government ministers will actually be their own legal advisers, take upon themselves to decide the right interpretation of the law and not be subject to a different legal opinion, the government is acting thus not only in order to deepen the annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories but its apartheid policy. Thus, it also ensures that contractual bonds, tenders, and allocation of budgets, licenses and jobs reach and benefit the supporters of the ruling party and its chief members.

This way there will be no need for annulling the offence in the Israeli panel code of “deceit and breach of trust” (Netanyahu is accused of violating it), since each minister will be appointed by the “law” to determine what is right and what is wrong, and could never be considered deceitful or breaching anyone’s trust.

When the Netanyahu government promotes Bills to subjugate the police and its investigations to the minister of national security and establish his own complete control over appointing judges, one should hear the severity of harm – which exists any way for decades – to the rights of Palestinians, Bedouins, refugees and demonstrators in Israel, and at the same time hear how the courts and police in Honduras and Bangladesh protect the corrupt and even promote corruption. In these states, the courts and police are not only a rubber stamp that validates human rights-violating government policies but also the rubber stamp that validates corruption and constitutes an inseparable part of it.

The Vietnam parallel

When the minister of culture Mickey Zohar, minister of communications Shlomo Kar’i, minister of education Yoav Kisch, and deputy minister at the Prime Minister’s Office Avi Ma’oz speak of filtering cooperation of their ministries according to their political or religious values, the shutting down of public broadcasting, or abolishing the funding of critical films and TV series, one must see the damage to the freedom of expression and worship, and also see their intention to allocate budgets and promote contractual bonds only for their own supporters.

Thus, for example, in the communist dictatorship in Vietnam (87th place on the world’s corruption scale), both the education system and the media are a well-oiled propaganda machine of Vietnam’s communist party, where nearly every government ministry and security unit has newspapers and news sites of their own.

In order to deny the Vietnamese public access to information about the scope of corruption and human rights violations or public discourse on these subjects, the penal code of November 2015 has defined the following acts as criminal, resulting even in 20 years of jail or death sentences: propaganda against the regime (clause 88), organising and conducting acts meant to replace the regime (clause 109), doubting the regime’s policy (clause 116), production, storage and dissemination of information meant to cause resistance to the regime (clause 117), disrupting security (clause 118), disrupting public order (clause 318), and the abuse of democratic rights and freedom in order to uproot the regime and individuals involved in it (clause 331).

In order to arrive at such severity of censure that encourages corruption in Israel, one need not legislate draconian amendments to the penal code, as in Vietnam but just stop providing public resources to critical voices. At the same time run a de-legitimising and dehumanising campaign against whoever continues to act independently and not be supported by the government and public bodies, which is enough.

When the minister of national security Itamar Ben Gvir speaks of founding a national guard to combat Arab crime and prepare for “Guardian of the Walls 2” (repetition of the military operation by Israel in May 2021), one should hear about founding a private militia of the “Jewish Power” party violating the freedoms of Palestinian and Bedouin citizens of Israel, and listen for the provision of jobs to young multitudes whose monthly paychecks will be personally assured by minister Ben Gvir, in return for their votes.

In the same manner, with the pretext of improving the struggle against crime but actually in order to receive voters’ support and personal loyalty among the ‘security forces’, the populist president of Mexico, Andras Manuel Lopez Obrador, founded a new national guard in 2019, that at its peak reached 115,000 soldiers and became another criminal organisation, corrupt and a violator of human rights.

When public bodies and ministers in Netanyahu’s government are following ‘blacklists’ prepared by right-wing organisations, naming “enemies of Israel”, “traitors” or “progressives” that are working in the public service and the academic world, when they take seriously false complaints of rightist trolls about “lack of loyalty” and “supporting terror” among workers of public institutions – one should listen to the harm done to freedom of expression, equality and employment, and hear about the jobs being made available to supporters of the ruling party and its veterans.

Therefore, one must cease to believe, falsely, that only fear of the “base” and social media makes members of the coalition and government “lie on the fence” for Prime Minister Netanyahu, and that perhaps some of them might sober up and support the reinforcement of democracy. They are not doing anything for Netanyahu, they are acting together with Netanyahu to widen the corruption pie and want to eat parts of it themselves.

The experience of many undemocratic states has shown that as soon as that pie of corruption reaches a certain size, it becomes endless. Then it is already too late to turn the wheel back and reinforce democratic elements that used to exist.

Note: This article first appeared on the Hebrew media platform The Seventh Eye. Tal Haran translated the piece from Hebrew to English.

Eitay Mack is a human rights lawyer and activist based in Jerusalem.