“Corruption is a problem of standards”

An interview with Executive Director Galia Sagi and Project Coordinator Ido Feder about the working methods of Transparency International Israel, opportunities and challenges in the fight against corruption.

The team at Transparency International Israel.

Transparency International Israel was founded in 1999. Was there a specific reason?

Galia Sagi: Transparency Israel was founded by Prof. Dov Izraeli. Lecturing at the Faculty of Economics, he developed anti-corruption instruments for businesses. In the course of that, he met representatives of Transparency International during a conference. Prof. Izraeli fell in love with the idea of founding an Israeli chapter. In the beginning, Transparency Israel mostly concentrated on business ethics. Accordingly, we provided courses on that. Based on this work we started activities in the political and public sector.

How is the chapter organised?

Galia Sagi: Our structures are different from Transparency Germany. We have nine council members, one chairman and two permanent employees. Additionally four to five staff members work within different projects. Students complete internships on a regular basis. Some of them are employed afterwards. We do not work with volunteers.

How many members does Transparency Israel have?

Galia Sagi: Not many. We have around fifty members and three companies as corporate members.

Which sector in Israel is most problematic with regards to a lack of transparency and corruption?

Galia Sagi: The local municipalities especially show a considerable lack in transparency. We think on local levels corruption is more widespread than in the national government.

Ido Feder: The most problematic issue is the close relationship between the media, government, and business. The media companies are mostly dominated by business tycoons. This has to change. That is what Transparency Israel is working on.

Please give an insight into your working methods.

Galia Sagi: In Israel it is very popular to talk about corruption. We do not think that Israel is a corrupt country. However, sure enough we do have problems with corruption. This is why we identify the exact difficulties. On the basis of this analysis we establish our strategies. We see it as our primary task to initiate public discussions. We manage the process, not the content. One of our basic tasks is monitoring. Around five years ago we started analysing the working methods of local municipalities and institutions in different areas. In addition to that, Transparency Israel also accompanies compliance with the OECD-Guidelines and the implementation of the UN Convention against Corruption.

How do you asses the legal basis of anti-corruption measures and prevention of corruption?

Galia Sagi: We have a strong legislation concerning anti-corruption, but the enforcement must be realised by implementing norms such as a “zero-tolerance for corruption”. Corruption is a problem of norms, not legislation. If specific norms are not implemented, there will be no change in behaviour. Legislation is a very important first step. But a change of norms concerning the fostering of integer and ethically correct behaviour must happen within the social structures. We are convinced norm-oriented action in society has to be fostered. Success in the fight against corruption is based on the interaction of norms and legislation. If there is a lack of interaction, it will not work.

Does this mean Transparency Israel does not primarily fault insufficient legislation as the reason for difficulties in the fight against corruption, but social structure?

Ido Feder: I think Israel has a ”small new country” mentality. The social interests are largely fragmented. It becomes difficult when different groups focus on one specific norm and consider it important. That is especially true for transparency. Generally speaking, it is very difficult to develop effective tactics a whole society is willing to commit on, and an idea which is ultimately supported by a “majority”. This is also reflected in political structures. The Israeli party constellation is highly fragmented. There are many parties [editor’s note: currently there are twelve parties represented in the Knesset]. This means if you want to push an idea in politics, it has to be extremely sexy – so it raises anyone’s interest. For general issues such as the fight against corruption or the increase of transparency it is very difficult to find an addressee. A broad public discussion, supported by the media, is needed. People must ask and must want to know, what is going on. For a broad fight against corruption the whole society has to be included.

Does Transparency Israel manage to reach the Israeli society?

Galia Sagi: We are not as well known as we would like to. We cannot say that we are a well-known NGO.

Ido Feder: That’s due to the issue that nobody can see corruption. All the other problems are visible. Corruption, however, is something abstract.

Galia Sagi: On the one hand, everybody thinks corruption is only an issue on the national level. People do not realise that corruption also concerns them. On the other hand, everybody knows the Corruption Perceptions Index. People are not aware of the fact that this index is connected to the work of Transparency International.

The office of Transparency Israel is located on the campus of the University of Tel Aviv. I therefore conclude that Transparency Israel has a close relation to students and future young decision makers.

Galia Sagi: No, Transparency Israel unfortunately does not have a lot of contact to students. Students are normally interested in concrete activities, e.g. taking part in a demonstration or supporting a petition. We do not do such things. That is due to our strategy: for example, we do not go to court. We do not hit the headlines. Students are not so much interested in our strategy of monitoring.

Ido Feder: We have many problems in Israel, i.e. the conflict with Palestine. Everybody serves the military. Among other things some of those experiences superimpose on other issues. The interest in and the awareness of the problem of corruption is being forgotten. Security issues are however omnipresent.

Galia Sagi: On the other hand, last week I gave a presentation to first semester students and they were very interested in the issue of corruption.

During the last months Israeli and international press reported a lot about Israeli corruption scandals, in particular on the lawsuit against former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. How do you assess the conviction of Olmert?

Editor’s note: In 2012 Ehud Olmert was convicted of breach of trust to a year of probation and a fine of around 15.000 Euro.

Ido Feder: The case of Olmert is very complicated. Many interests merge which we cannot explain any further.

Galia Sagi: For us it is not important, if someone is charged and convicted. Corruption does not only become reality due to legal consequences. It is there all along. Those politicians being convicted of corruption should not quickly come back to politics – that is our clear position. We directly appeal to society, not to vote for corrupt politicians. Transparency Israel demands that politicians convicted of corruption should only be allowed to come back to the political stage after a suspension of fifteen years. The Israelis seems to have a different opinion. The “zero tolerance for corruption“ norm remains relatively weak in society.

To us it is clear that Olmert has misused his entrusted power for private gain. He was however not convicted of corruption, but of breach of trust. Society seems to tolerate that.

Ido Feder: It is very much discussed if Olmert has acted “only a little corrupt“. Unfortunately, the society forgives corrupt behaviour easily. During the last years that has become apparent several times.

How do you assess the success of Transparency Israel?

Galia Sagi: Local authorities and municipal bodies appreciate our work. Their employees call us and send information. They want to strengthen their structures. Currently, we are involved in a project that supports municipal administration in becoming more transparent. Accordingly, Transparency International Israel develops criteria on how local government can attain more transparency. Our efforts within the framework of the National Integrity System (NIS) proceeds well. But there still remains a lot to be done. In the end we are only truly successful, if our organisation is not needed any more.

Let’s look into the future. What is Transparency Israel planning for the next years? Where do you see the need for further measures?

Galia Sagi: We would like to develop more effective instruments to fight corruption and to foster transparency. Particularly, we see a concrete call for action concerning state enterprises and local authorities. We would also like to increase our public recognition.

This interview was translated by Elisabeth Kahler, intern at Transparency Germany.

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