To Cut Corruption in the Palestinian Authority, Cut Off Development Aid

Foreign development aid plays a unique role in the lives of Palestinians, as aid is the main driver of growth in the Palestinian economy. For this reason, many people welcomed the Biden Administration’s announcement in April to reverse the Trump Administration’s decision to halt all development aid to Palestinians. Yet widespread corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA)—which remains the principal recipient of aid to Palestinians—threatens to undermine the effectiveness of aid. Worse, foreign aid to the PA helps perpetuate and exacerbate the PA’s culture of corruption.

Corruption in the PA is deeply entrenched. To illustrate with just a handful of many possible examples: Between 2008 and 2012 alone, over US$2.3 billion in development aid money from the European Union to the PA was embezzled. In 2017, the PA spent staggering sums on fake companies and projects, including a non-existent airline. Rather than develop welfare programs to distribute social services or development aid money to the public, the PA allocates the money to salary payouts for security officers and government officials in job placements secured by cronyism. High-ranking PA officials regularly establish their own NGOs and phony companies to attract additional funds from aid programs. Yet for the most part donors have turned a blind eye to the PA’s blatant corruption and mismanagement of development funds. (For instance, even when investigators reported PA officials’ massive embezzlement of EU aid funds, the EU did not discontinue the provision of aid.) Consequently, despite more than US$15 billion in development aid given to Palestinians in the past thirty years, that aid has failed to reduce poverty or deliver sustainable improvements in ordinary Palestinians’ quality life.

And it’s not just that the PA’s corruption undermines the effectiveness of aid. Perhaps the even bigger problem is that the flow of development aid contributes to and props up the PA’s culture of large-scale corruption. The more funding the PA can access, the more powerful it becomes, and the more capable it is of embezzling funds and extorting bribes from its populace. Worse still, the costs of the corruption that the aid to the PA fuels are not merely economic costs: In Palestine, corruption contributes to needless violence, political radicalization, and, ultimately, the loss of innocent lives.

The only way to break out of this malignant cycle is for donors to call a halt to unfettered development aid to Palestinian government institutions, which have proven themselves time and again to be too weak and unscrupulous to handle aid without corruption.

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A Closer Look at Corruption, Hamas, and Violence in the Gaza Strip

The recent violent clash between Israel and Hamas followed a pattern that has become depressingly familiar since Hamas won control of the Gaza Strip in 2006: Hamas instigates violence towards Israel and its civilians; Israel responds with military strikes targeting Hamas’s weaponry infrastructure, but since Hamas has intentionally embedded itself in Gaza’s civilian population, Israel’s strikes inevitably claim innocent lives. The question whether Israel’s response was proportional or excessive saturates the news and media. Eventually the two sides reach a tentative ceasefire, the violence subsides, and attention turns elsewhere—until the vicious cycle repeats.

Most readers, whatever their views on the underlying moral and legal issues, are likely familiar with this pattern. But what does this have to do with corruption? Quite a bit, actually. 

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A Media Advisor-Client Privilege Would Be Inimical to Anticorruption in Israel

The ongoing corruption trial of Israel’s Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu (who stepped down as Israel’s Prime Minister in mid-June 2021 after 12 consecutive years of service, replaced by Naftali Bennett), as well as the investigations that took place before it, have triggered a wide variety of legislative reform proposals. Members of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) who oppose Netanyahu have proposed bills that would prevent individuals with sufficiently serious prior criminal convictions from serving as the Prime Minister (which Netanyahu is planning on trying to do again), or bar certain criminal defendants from running for Israel’s Presidency (which some had formerly speculated Netanyahu may do). Knesset members from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, on the other hand, have pushed to bolster protections for criminal suspects and defendants, especially elected officials. For example, Likud members have proposed bills that would prohibit some forms of recording of public servants, or make it more difficult for the prosecution to appeal acquittals.

The fact that the criminal proceeding against Netanyahu has relied in substantial part on the incriminating key testimony of Netanyahu’s former media advisor (who became a “state’s witness” in 2018) is the likely (though not explicit) motivation for another recently proposed bill that would establish a “media advisor-client privilege,” according to which “matters and documents exchanged between a media advisor or a spokesperson and his [or her] client [] and which have a material relation to the services provided” could not be submitted as evidence unless the client waived this privilege. In other words, media advisors or spokespersons would generally be barred from testifying against their clients. The bill’s drafters argue that a media advisor-client privilege is justified for reasons similar to that of an attorney-client privilege—the need for “complete openness” between clients and their media advisors or spokespersons.

The impulse to resist the proposed media advisor-client privilege is understandable, given its seemingly blatant relationship to Netanyahu’s trial and the fact that its protection would be afforded to a very narrow class of powerful and wealthy criminal defendants. However, even though we should sometimes resist the impulse to oppose criminal justice reforms whose proponents have questionable motives, in this case even when considered independently from its problematic context, the proposal for media advisor-client privilege raises at least three strong anticorruption concerns that warrant its rejection:

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A Mandatory Reporting Requirement in Israel: Maybe Not a Lost Hope?

In my last post, I discussed and critiqued a proposal, advanced in a policy paper published by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), for a mandatory reporting requirement in Israel’s public sector. Under the IDI paper’s proposal, a public official who, acting in his or her official capacity, formed a “substantial suspicion” that corruption has taken place or will take place could face disciplinary sanctions for failing to report this suspected corruption “as soon as possible.” I criticized this proposal on the grounds that it would both discourage reporting in those cases where a potential whistleblower is reluctant to report right away and so delays for a period of time, and would also deter employees from cooperating with investigators by sharing relevant information that they had not previously disclosed. In both of these cases—the employee who didn’t report right away but might be willing to report later, and the employee who didn’t voluntarily report but might be willing to share information when questioned by investigators—the threat of disciplinary sanctions for failure to report immediately may actually induce employees to keep silent, especially since the chances they will be caught and punished if they never reveal what they suspected are generally quite low. Instead of imposing a mandatory reporting requirement, I argued, Israel (and similarly situated countries) should strengthen positive incentives for whistleblowers, offering them more generous rewards and more effective protections against retaliation.

While many readers broadly agreed with my critique of the IDI paper’s mandatory reporting proposal in its current form, several colleagues suggested that a modified version of the mandatory reporting requirement might be effective and appropriate. In this post, I consider what seem to me the most plausible and promising revisions to the original IDI proposal, and evaluate whether these modifications would overcome my principal critiques: Continue reading

Why Mandatory Corruption Reporting Requirements May Prove Counterproductive

Whistleblowers who report on and expose illegal acts in their workplaces are invaluable to fighting corruption. In Israel, as I stressed in a previous post, the recognition of the importance of whistleblowers has led to the adoption of several (unsatisfactory) legal instruments which are designed to encourage whistleblowers to step forward. These instruments are mainly about rewarding or protecting those employees who have dared to report on illegalities despite the personal and professional risks associated with their coming forward. An important example of such a positive instrument is Israel’s Protection of Workers (Exposure of Offenses and of Harm to Integrity or to Proper Administration) Law,  which establishes a whistleblower-friendly mechanism for seeking damages from employers who engage in unlawful retaliation .

But some argue that positive incentives are insufficient. In 2019, the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), one of the country’s leading research institutes, published a policy paper in which the authors (Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer and Yazid Ershied) argued that negative incentives—that is, the threat of sanctions for those who fail to report corruption in their workplaces—should also be employed. More specifically, the authors propose that Israel’s disciplinary law include a provision that requires any public employee who, in his or her official capacity, has formed a “substantial suspicion” that an act of corruption has taken place to report on it “as soon as possible” to a newly established governmental unit which would address corruption in the public sector. The authors claim that adoption of such a mandatory reporting requirement, if backed by the credible threat of sanctions, would increase the number of reports by public officials who observe corruption. (The sanctions recommended by the authors would be disciplinary rather than criminal, as criminal sanctions in their view would be disproportionate and consequently ineffective.)

The IDI paper is the most thorough and impressive piece written on proposals to adopt a mandatory reporting requirement on corruption in Israel. But while the authors list some good reasons for adopting such a requirement, they fail to consider how their proposal would interact with the phenomenon of “delayed reporting.” Employees are often reluctant to report suspected corruption right away, but eventually become willing to report it. In other words, for entirely understandable reasons, it often takes whistleblowers some time and contemplation before they are finally ready to report on illegalities. When one takes this fact into account, it becomes apparent that the IDI paper’s proposed mandatory reporting requirement might prove counterproductive, for two reasons: Continue reading

Anticorruption Court Rulings as a Gentle Reminder to Voters: Candidates’ Integrity Is Important

One of the great paradoxes in the research on corruption in democracies—and one of the great sources of frustration for anticorruption activists—is that while large majorities of voters consistently claim that they detest corruption and would be less likely to support corrupt politicians, nonetheless politicians credibly accused of corruption regularly win elections. There are many possible explanations for this, including the possibilities that voters lack sufficient information about corruption allegations against candidates, or that voters ultimately prioritize other factors. Yet another possibility—similar to yet distinct from these familiar explanations—is that even if voters are generally aware of corruption allegations against certain politicians, when the time comes to vote, other issues are more salient in many citizens’ minds, and integrity concerns fade into the background.

That last explanation implies that if concerns about politicians’ integrity were made more salient shortly before the election—even if the focus was on political corruption generally, or on corruption in some other jurisdiction—then voters would be less inclined to support politicians suspected of corruption. In a recent article, titled Can Institutions Make Voters Care about Corruption?, Omer Yair, Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan, and Yoav Dotan find that this may indeed be the case, and further suggest that if high-profile institutions—such as courts—take actions that raise the salience of corruption and integrity issues shortly before an election, this can lead voters to place more weight on such considerations when casting their ballots. Continue reading

Two Legal Changes Which Would Bolster Israel’s Protection of Whistleblowers

Like many other jurisdictions around the world, Israel has long recognized the value of whistleblowers who report and expose illegal acts in their workplaces. Without such whistleblowers, it is almost certain that Israeli citizens and law enforcement would never have learned, for example, about alleged corruption in the Israel Tax Authority, municipalities, Israel Aerospace Industries, the Ministry of Transport and Road Safety, and others. In order to encourage more whistleblowers to come forward, Israel has developed several legal instruments, the strongest and most central being the Protection of Workers (Exposure of Offenses and of Harm to Integrity or to Proper Administration) Law (PoWL) (see here and here). The PoWL, originally enacted in 1997 and amended three times since then, civilly and criminally forbids employers from retaliating against employees for whistleblowing, and establishes an employee-friendly mechanism for the victims of such retaliation to seek damages. These cases are heard by Israel’s specialized Labor Courts. In addition to awarding compensatory damages, the courts are also authorized to order employers to pay exemplary (that is, punitive) damages, and may also invalidate the whistleblower-plaintiff’s dismissal, or order that the whistleblower be moved to “another appropriate position” in the workplace.

While at first glance the PoWL seems to offer strong protections for whistleblowers, the PoWL suffers from two major weaknesses that significantly compromise its effectiveness. These problems must be addressed if the PoWL is to provide whistleblowers with adequate protections against retaliation: Continue reading

The Bribery Trial of Sitting Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Poses Unprecedented Challenges

The criminal trial of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, on multiple corruption charges, opened yesterday, only ten days after the formation of a new government, and after years of police investigations, indictment procedures, and three rounds of early general elections. The trial is an unprecedented event in Israel, and one of the few examples anywhere in the world where a sitting head of government has stood trial on criminal charges in his own country. This situation poses unique challenges. On the one hand, the court must ensure that Netanyahu’s rights, as a criminal defendant, are respected. That said, though, some adjustments will have to be made to secure both the fairness of the trial and the integrity of Israeli executive and judicial branches, given that as the trial unfolds, Netanyahu will continue to serve as Prime Minister.

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Adapting Anticorruption Enforcement to an Age of Populism and Polarization

Shortly after the U.S. Senate acquitted President Clinton in 1999, he apologized for triggering the impeachment process. President Trump, in contrast, declared that his acquittal called for “a day of celebration,” and immediately started firing White House employees who had testified before the House of Representatives. In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Olmert resigned shortly after the police recommended that he should be indicted on corruption charges. In contrast, after Prime Minister Netanyahu was indicted on multiple bribery charges, he infamously said that Israeli citizens should “investigate the investigators,” and even with the trial approaching, Netanyahu shows no signs of considering resignation. Instead, he is currently fiercely promoting legislation to amend several of the Israeli Constitutional Basic Laws in ways that will allow him to remain in office for years to come. These troubling examples illustrate how the resurgence of populism, coupled with increasing polarization, are making it easier for corrupt politicians to evade accountability, even in countries with functional legal and judicial systems. Deep political divisions and strong partisan loyalty are not new, but in the past, it seems there was a degree of overlapping consensus on minimum standards of integrity and propriety, and enough citizens were willing to enforce these standards on a non-partisan basis that leaders would be restrained by political checks—enforced through things like elections and internal party discipline—that could complement judicial processes.

Moreover, leaders like Trump and Netanyahu have acted aggressively to undermine the institutions of justice in order to protect themselves. Both leaders have cavalierly attacked the professionalism and integrity of their country’s law enforcement agencies by suggesting that investigations targeting the leader or his associates are politically motivated “witch hunts.” And both have taken more concrete action to undermine the ordinary operation of the machinery of justice. In the U.S., after his Senate trial acquittal, President Trump intervened to help allies who had been found guilty in cases related to investigations of impropriety by Trump’s 2016 campaign. For example, Trump’s Attorney General ordered the Department of Justice to seek a more lenient sentence for Trump’s former consultant Roger Stone, and Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of several others in a short and unorthodox process. Netanyahu has been even more aggressive in trying to weaken legal institutions in order to protect himself. After being indicted, Netanyahu fired the Minister of Justice and appointed in her place a low-ranking member of his party with no prior ministerial experience. The new Minister’s first action was to appoint a new Solicitor General—the immediate superior of the prosecution team in Netanyahu’s case–through an irregular process and against the recommendation of the non-partisan Attorney General. (Due to the political deadlock, the Minister is part of a caretaker government and could therefore appoint an interim Solicitor General without the approval of the public committee that the law would otherwise require.) On the eve of Israel’s third round of elections, the new Solicitor General decided—against the opinion of the Attorney General and many others—to launch a police investigation into a firm in which Netanyahu’s chief rival Benny Gantz served as a director (obscuring the fact that Gantz himself is not a suspect). More recently, the Minister of Justice gave the unprecedented order to freeze all non-urgent judicial procedures due to the Covid-19 outbreak—a move that indefinitely postpones Netanyahu’s trial. While the Covid-19 outbreak has disrupted or delayed judicial proceedings in many countries, there was no expert opinion supporting such drastic measures in Israel, especially given that Israel has more per capita testing and ventilators capacity than nearly any country on earth. Even now, when newly detected cases are close to zero, a new date for the trial has yet to be set. Moreover, to avoid a fourth round of elections, given the continued deadlock, Netanyahu is now fiercely and unprecedently promoting legislative amendments to Israel’s Constitutional Basic Laws that would allow him to hold onto office for years to come.

When professional, and traditionally non-partisan, law enforcement agencies find themselves under attack by corrupt populists, these agencies often do not respond, presumably due to the belief that the only way to maintain integrity, legitimacy, and professionalism in the face of such attacks is to refrain from commenting on unfounded claims meant to disparage state attorneys and police investigators. There is much to be said for that approach, but at the same time, the institutions of justice can and should do more to counter the attempts of corrupt populists to undermine those institutions in order to remain in power.

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New Podcast, Featuring Doron Navot

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, my collaborator Ina Kubbe, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Tel Aviv, interviews Professor Doron Navot, of the University of Haifa political science department. Much of the interview focuses on corruption in Israel, especially the allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and how these allegations have affected Israeli politics and society. The interview also covers broader themes related to corruption in Israel, including widespread “informal” practices that bleed over into illegal exchanges or favoritism. The interview concludes with a discussion about different forms of corruption their relative frequency in Israel, and what can be learned from Israeli anticorruption efforts.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.