Are Convicts Fit for Political Office?

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Should politicians who have been convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude be able to return to political life? In this article, IDI Vice President of Research Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer and Dr. Doron Navot explore the lenient approach to this matter that seems to have emerged in the Israeli public.

The possible return of certain public figures to the political arena raises a series of normative, socio-political, and legal questions.  First, should we adopt a permissive approach toward convicted politicians? If not, why has the permissive approach gained currency in Israel's public discourse? Finally, should we prohibit the return to political life of politicians who are convicted of crimes through legislation?

We believe the permissive approach ought to be rejected. The proper public norm should be that public figures who have been convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude should be considered persona non grata in government as a rule. Governmental power places many temptations before office holders. To successfully resist such temptations, one needs a strong ethical backbone. Clearly, the likelihood that a person who has erred in the past will act inappropriately in the future is higher than the likelihood of such behavior on the part of someone without a criminal record.

Second, the more senior a person becomes, the greater the likelihood that he will maintain connections to individuals who were involved in his prior criminal activities. The reelection of this person strengthens the chances that at least some of these same individuals will, once again, fill significant roles in public life, with all that this implies.

Third, the reelection of a criminal teaches other politicians that they need not fear the public's response when considering whether to act corruptly. As a result, the public exposes itself to an increased danger of corruption.
Fourth, the reelection of a criminal is likely to have a corrupting influence both on the government and on the public as a whole. It is highly doubtful that a person who has been convicted of a crime of this kind can be a positive role model for the public at large or for his subordinates. The reelection of a criminal undermines anti-corruption norms and weakens the hands of law enforcement authorities combating corruption.

Finally—and independent of everything stated above—the election of a convicted criminal is likely to hurt the public's faith in government.
It is unclear to what extent a permissive approach has been adopted by the Israeli public. To date, this question has not been researched; nor has it been put to the test. However, in recent elections, the Israeli public did not reject politicians with a checkered history of ethical integrity (but no criminal record). Furthermore, a number of politicians, journalists, and public figures openly support the permissive approach. Thus we may safely assume that support for the permissive approach is not a marginal phenomenon.  How can this permissive approach be explained?

At first glance, the reason is simple: the interests of individuals who have economic power and who work to advance the reelection of their cronies. People's discomfort may also be attenuated by the realization that politics are never particularly clean. This truism is a reality not unique to Israel. However, such widespread permissiveness does not exist in countries where the rule of law is considered strong—even though they are not free of vested interests or of the less savory aspects of politics. The other aspect of the explanation relates specifically to Israel.

Israel's difficult political-security situation contributes to a sense that national security trumps all other considerations. And when it comes to the task of handling a security crisis decisively, leaders lacking moral inhibitions are sometimes perceived as more fit for the job. The enormous responsibility shouldered by the Prime Minister and other senior officials also encourages a forgiving attitude toward their involvement in corruption. How significant is corrupt behavior when compared to the ability to deal successfully with the nuclear threat to Israel's existence?

In a society torn by ideological controversy, there is a tendency to place greater emphasis on a candidate's political stances over questions of ethical integrity since "the end justifies the means." From the perspective of the peace camp, how important is it that a leader has been a little corrupt if he can resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict? From the viewpoint of the nationalist camp, how significant is a bit of corruption when compared to ensuring the future of the settlement enterprise? There is an institutional problem as well: In the current Israeli electoral system, voters cannot affect the composition of a party list on Election Day. For voters who consider ethical integrity to be a primary consideration, but who also identify with a party's platform, it is impossible to disassociate themselves from corrupt individuals who may appear on the party's list.

In a society like Israel's, where politics exhibits a strong tribal tendency, there is a tendency to forgive the leaders of the tribe. The candidate is "one of our own," a member of the family, and all his sins are forgiven.

On top of all of this, two problematic perceptions have become entrenched among the Israeli public. The first is that most elected officials are corrupt; therefore, the difference between a proven criminal and other politicians is, merely, that the first has been caught. This being the case, a conviction of corruption loses its significance as a fundamental issue that separates the convict from his peers. The second denies the existence of an ethical-public arena, which has conditions and demands that go beyond those required by law. According to this perception, whatever is legal is not just permitted but strictly kosher. This perception admits no possibility for some conduct to be legal, yet improper or inappropriate. In short, Israelis seem to lack the basic notion of "it is not done."

We reject these wrong-headed perceptions.  Only a minority of elected officials are tainted by corruption, and a society that does not have a political arena governed by ethical-public norms cannot be a law-abiding society. And yet, since these beliefs are apparently widespread, the question arises: Should the Knesset pass legislation that absolutely forbids convicted politicians from running for election?

We think not. From a legal perspective, there is no justification for such an absolute, sweeping norm. First, should a 19-year-old squad commander, who received some sort of benefit in exchange for releasing a subordinate from military duty (thus committing the crime of bribery), be disqualified from running for election as a member of Knesset at the age of 50?  A single error, even if severe, followed by publically-expressed remorse does not justify the permanent legal nullification of a citizen's right to be elected to the Knesset. Second, a legislative norm of this nature will only strengthen the belief that only the letter of the law matters, leaving no room for ethical-public norms. This is reminiscent of an old joke that Woody Allen tells in Annie Hall. Two elderly women are having breakfast at a resort. The first says, "The food at this place is really terrible," and the second adds, "Yeah, I know... and such small portions." 

Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute.  Dr. Doron Navot is a lecturer in the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa and is the author of Political Corruption in Israel.

A version of this article was published as "The Corruption Conundrum" in the Jerusalem Report on December 3, 1012.