Lamenting the lack of personal accountability in Israel

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, Dec. 17, 1998

JERUSALEM - The other day, while driving my children to school in Jerusalem, I was passing through an intersection and suddenly a car, having ignored a yield sign, almost plowed into the side of my car.

This is not unusual in Israel. At the last second, I swerved away, averting what surely would have been a nasty accident. Moments later, I jumped out of my car and asked the driver if street signs meant anything to him. He answered with a dismissive wave of his hand - this is even less unusual in Israel - disavowing any responsibility for the near collision.

"Don't look at me!" or something to that effect is an all-too-familiar refrain of Israelis when asked to own up to their actions. Too often their attitude, in a snide variation of Alfred E. Newman's immortal "What, me worry?" boils down to, "What, me take responsibility?"

The shameless lack of accountability in Israeli life is staggering, pervading every sector of society. It manifests itself when dealing with store managers, tradespeople and civil servants. It's seen in both banal and serious situations. It's felt even in the rampant price gouging that makes this country often seem like one big rip-off.

Many of the country's major companies behave with cavalier disregard for their customers. Until recently, Bezek had the overseas phone services market all to itself and acted accordingly - with high prices, dubious service and little recourse for the consumer. After the government finally broke its monopoly, Bezek slashed its long-distance rates. A year later, Bezek still reported huge profits.

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court rejected a petition from cable TV companies aimed at preventing the Communications Ministry from ending their monopoly over multi-channel television broadcasting. Until now, consumers have had to suffer exorbitant prices, mediocre service and a decreasing number of channels.

Early this month, the Israel Democracy Institute presented findings of its research to the

Knesset Economics Committee, showing that the major supermarket chains imposed unjustifiably steep price increases on dozens of imported and locally made products before the shekel began to fall.

In the political sphere, citizens often feel their elected officials don't represent them. On the national level, there are no electoral districts. Since Knesset Members don't represent a particular area, they are accountable to no one except their party bosses and maybe sometimes their conscience.

In the government, it's rare for cabinet ministers to hold themselves accountable and resign - even when embroiled in scandal. It's no better on the local level where neighborhoods don't have representatives on city council. You cast your ballot for a party and a mayor and that's it.

Until last month's municipal elections, Tel Aviv was without a functioning mayor for half a year. Since last spring when he announced his intention to run for prime minister in the next general election, Roni Milo had been virtually absent from his elected job. Instead, he spent most of his time creating a new party and travelling the globe to raise funds.

In Jerusalem, Mayor Ehud Olmert spends almost as much time abroad as he does in the capital. A few weeks ago, he failed to dismiss one of his deputy mayors for highly offensive, racist remarks against Russian immigrants.

Several MKs, including some from Olmert's own Likud party, had called on him to suspend Haim Miller, a haredi leader who also triggered a previous controversy when he denounced the Israeli flag as "only a rag."

Last month, representatives of victims of the Maccabiah bridge disaster appealed to the 3,000 delegates at the General Assembly of North American Jewish Federations (GA) in Jerusalem for support in their fight for justice.

In July 1997, four Australian athletes were killed and 64 others injured when a footbridge they were crossing collapsed during the opening ceremony of the Maccabi Games near Tel Aviv.

At the GA, Australian Jewish leaders and their supporters (including prominent Canadian human rights lawyer Irwin Cotler) held a press conference during which they stressed the importance of public accountability. As such, one of their demands is that the two top executives of the Israel-based Maccabi World Union (MWU), which organized the games and commissioned the hastily built bridge, resign, at least until the conclusion of legal proceedings.

Sadly, the Maccabiah bridge affair is only one of a litany of preventable tragedies for which public officials have dodged responsibility. At times, the very notion of accountability seems an exotic concept. Tellingly, the word does not exist in Hebrew.

Of course, accountability would be far less of an issue if only people would do their jobs right in the first place, thereby avoiding the disasters that can result from slipshod planning and mismanagement. Don't look at me. I only live here.

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