What Are Friends For?

Sharon 's election campaign started like the triumphal march of a Roman emperor returning from victorious battle. The imperator stood in his carriage accepting the roars of adulation, while the chained captives (the Labor Party leaders) shuffled behind.

But the march hit a mud pit. And with every step, it sinks more.

It started with the primary elections in the Likud party. They were conducted on a pure business basis. Since the public opinion polls promised the Likud a third of the 120 Knesset seats, it was worthwhile to invest money. The politicians paid the vote-traders, some of them known criminals, who hired more than a hundred thousand 'new members.' These stuffed the 3,000-man Central Committee. The newly elected Committee members sold their votes to the highest bidders among the various candidates for the Likud Knesset list. Pure business.

All this would have passed quietly, if the direct connection between some of the candidates and organized crime had not been apparent. A scandal broke out, and the police were compelled to start an investigation.

In the uproar about the role of organized crime in the ruling party, a much more severe phenomenon was ignored: Among the candidates about to enter the new Knesset is a former senior Security Service officer, who has killed with his bare hands a handcuffed Palestinian captive, bashing his head in with a rock. At the time, he was quickly issued a presidential pardon. The coveted place on the Likud list was given him mainly for this act of heroism.

The highest place on the list went to Tsakhi Hanegbi, who became famous, at the start of his political career, for organizing pogroms against Arab student on the Tel-Aviv University campus. In order to attract votes, he published a list of 80 Likud functionaries whom he had provided with jobs in his Ecology Ministry.

The appointment of party hacks to positions in the civil service and government-owned corporations is a glaring violation of public trust. Not only do these functionaries live off the taxpayer's money, but the appointment of party apparatchiks, instead of qualified experts, does immense harm to the public interest.

(It was not by accident that Hanegbi achieved such an elevated place on the party list. Some years ago, the Likud Minister of Education asked the 3,000 members of the Central Committee: 'Have we come to power in order to distribute jobs to party members?' Her rhetorical question was answered with a thunderous: 'Yes!!!')

The Likud election list started to stink. But the party stalwarts could at least comfort themselves with the thought that at the top of the list stood a knight of impeccable honor.

Until last week, when a scandal exploded around Ariel Sharon himself.

It started with the disclosure of an official document: a request by the Israeli Ministry of Justice that the South African government allow the interrogation of a South African millionaire concerning criminal suspicions against Ariel Sharon . Who leaked it? Some suspect the Foreign Office, headed now by Binyamin Netanyahu, Sharon 's bitter rival and nemesis.

The story, in brief, is that during the last elections, Sharon received a huge, illegal donation from a mysterious company whose owners were unknown. The State Comptroller demanded that Sharon return the money. He was compelled to do so, because otherwise he would have had to pay a four-fold fine. Miraculously, he received a huge loan from a mysterious source. He states that he got the money from the South African millionaire. But everything was done in an opaque and suspicious way; the money reached him by a circuitous route through several countries. The South African millionaire himself refuses to talk about it, behaving as if he had committed a crime. When Sharon was asked about it by the police, he shifted the responsibility to his two sons, Omer and Gilead , answering questions with 'I don't know' and 'I am not sure.' As if anybody can believe that he did not ask his sons before the interrogation.

One has to know the background in order to understand the story. This is not the first time that the relationship between Sharon and Jewish millionaires in several countries has caused people in the know to raise their eyebrows, but these things were never brought up in public.

In 1973, when it became clear to Sharon that he would never be appointed Chief of Staff, he resigned from the army. Within a few months, he became the owner of the biggest private farm in the country. A major general does receive a handsome salary (more than a cabinet minister), but how does one acquire a huge farm with that? In Hebrew slang, such questions are answered with 'What are friends for?'

One of Sharon 's best friends is the American ex-Israeli billionaire Meshulam Riklis, who made it possible for Sharon to acquire the farm. Riklis is also the patron of the Jewish American ex-Israeli billionaire Aryeh Genger, who is now acting as Sharon 's unofficial emissary to the White House. Genger's legal council in Israel is Dov Weisglass, now Sharon's cabinet chief. The South African millionaire, who is playing now a central role in the Sharon scandal, is Richard Kern, who served in the IDF in 1948. All these millionaires know each other.

This week it was not clear at all which millionaire gave Sharon the money (some $1.5 million) and who served only as camouflage. What is the real source of the money? Is it black or white? The more Sharon denies, the more suspicious it looks.

The connection between Israeli generals and Jewish millionaires from abroad is an arresting subject by itself. It is a two-way deal: the generals receive generous support from the millionaires, the millionaires acquire dignity. Generally, these are millionaires who thirst for recognition and believe that they are not accorded the honor due to them by the 'goyish' society in their homelands. They mention at every opportunity 'my friend, the general,' have their photos taken with him at state events, entertain him at their home and are guests at his. When General Ezer Weitzman was the President of Israel , it became known that he had been supported by a friendly millionaire for many years. He was not the only general who was helped by an admiring millionaire.

The admiration of the millionaires for the generals is real. Some of them are ashamed of the fact that they had emigrated from Israel without serving in the army, facts which at the time were considered shameful. Yitzhaq Rabin once gave them a Hebrew title that can best be translated as 'refuse of cowards.' They believe that their proximity to Israeli war heroes gives them back their lost honor.

But the proximity to generals is not only a matter of honor. When the generals become ministers in the Israeli cabinet, they are expected to be generous to their generous benefactors. The fact the Genger is received at the White House as Sharon's confidante is not hurting his financial status in the United States, nor does it necessarily induce the authorities in Haifa to remove his accident-prone big chemical enterprise from the densely populated Haifa Bay area, where it endangers, according to some experts, the lives of many thousands. Friendship with the Prime Minister has never yet hurt a captain of industry or finance.

All this is not new. What is new is the glare of light that suddenly illuminates dark corners. The connection between some of the Likud leaders and organized crime is exposed more and more, and the personal scandal involving Sharon, that also brings new disclosures every day, can do what the intifada, the bloodshed, the economic crisis and the social breakdown could not do: to undermine the foundations of the Likud government. The party already has gone down in the polls from 37 to 27 seats.

A satirical column has offered the Likud a new slogan: 'The whole world is against us, except the underworld.'

It can all be summed up with the saying coined some 150 years ago by the British statesman, Lord Acton: 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.' Few know the second sentence of Lord Acton's admonition: 'Great men are always bad men.'

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Uri Avnery's picture
Columns on STR: 123

Uri Avnery is a peace activist.