Two weeks ago, Israelis went to the polls to elect their mayors. At a family lunch just before the elections, I asked my granddaughter Maya, 13, whom she would vote for in her city, had she been old enough to vote. “I would vote for X, of course”, she said. Then, to make sure I knew who she was talking about, she added: “You know, X the thief”.
“X the thief?” I wondered.
“Of course”, she said. “Everyone knows he is a thief. But he is a good mayor”.
While Maya reads a lot, I don’t think she has already read Il Principe — The Prince — that groundbreaking book by Renaissance political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli, who had said that “in the actions of all men, and especially of princes . . . one judges by the result.” Or, in the popular version, “the ends justify the means.” Yet like Maya, many Israelis have subscribed to this pragmatic approach when they went to the ballots to elect their mayors.
Three mayors — Shimon Gapso of Upper Nazareth, Yitzhak Rochberger of Ramat Hasharon and Shlomi Lahiani of Bat Yam (guess who is X) — were running for reelection, despite being faced with corruption charges. The Supreme Court ruled that because they were charged, they must step down, but at the same time complicated things by allowing them to run for reelection, assuming they were innocent until proven guilty. The logic of this escapes my limited legal mind, but the Supreme Court left the Israelis with the dilemma: Should they reelect popular and successful mayors who smell of corruption, or show them the door and elect new, “clean” politicians instead.
The Israelis made their decision: They reelected the three mayors. This doesn’t mean that they accepted the poor statement of Mayor Lahiani in one of his interviews, that “there are other values except for respecting the court” (he explained that he had meant serving the citizens, etc.). However, voters had a message for the mayors: Compared to the 2008 elections, Lahiani lost 43 percent of his former voters, and Gapso and Rochberger lost 20 percent each. Israelis, then, were torn between their disgust of corrupt politicians and their desire to have the same politicians make their cities prosper.
Meanwhile in America, U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds sent former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to 28 years in prison for a long list of corruption charges. The arguments of his lawyer that his client had done a lot of good things for Detroit, were dismissed. According to the Detroit Free Press, Judge Edmunds expressed the hope that her sentence would send a message to future politicians. “We’re demanding transparency and accountability in our government,” Edmunds said. “If there has been corruption in the past, there will be corruption no more.”
All I can say to this solemn promise is Amen. However, for generations, corrupt politicians were sent to jail, yet this didn’t deter other greedy politicians from taking their chances, hoping they would not be caught. Maybe we need to look elsewhere for a remedy to this malaise, and borrowing a page from the history books is always an option.
The Romans, who really understood human nature, found a better way to overcome corruption in government. Every year, after finishing their terms, each of the two consuls — the highest public officials in the Republic — would be sent abroad to become a proconsul, a governor of a province. Once settled in their province, the proconsuls had exactly one year to tax and rob the locals, before returning home as rich people.
In light of the Roman example, here is an idea: Politicians, upon taking office, should take a public oath not to be corrupt (hold your laughs). Then, upon retiring from office, they would be given their reward: The doors of the basement at the Bank of Israel (or Fort Knox, if they are American), will be opened only for them, for exactly an hour. Armed with a shopping cart, they would be free to take as much money or gold as the cart and the time frame would allow them. I’m confident that it will be cheaper than the damages of corruption and the costs of the expensive trials.
These “reward raids” should be broadcast live, sure to produce a TV reality show with high ratings. And if all else fails, and corruption still keeps going strong, then at least the crowd gets a piece of good entertainment. The Romans knew how important that was, as well.