The assault on clean government

Benjamin Netanyahu  photo: Reuters

The bill to neuter Israel's State Comptroller is the latest in a series of attacks on the state's watchdogs, observes Tal Schneider.

First it's the salary of Israel Police chief Roni Alsheich, or a tip-off passed indirectly to a few journalists to the effect that Alsheich is readying to set up a political party (in fact, the law on cooling off periods doesn't allow it). Next, a bill is floated forbidding investigations of serving prime ministers, known as the "French law" after similar rules concerning presidents of France. Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's close allies MK David Bitan and MK David Amsalem put forward a bill outlawing publication of conclusions of police investigations, and bingo, third time lucky – the bill passes first reading in the Knesset with wonderful expedition (two weeks ago), and immediately afterwards is sent to the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, which is chaired by none other than Amsalem himself. Amsalem will see to it that the bill passes at lightning speed, part of the blitzkrieg against the guardians of the State of Israel.

Yesterday morning we were treated to another pearl: a bill that would forbid the State Comptroller from doing his job. The bill, as drafted by MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi), uses the following innocent sounding words to camouflage its real and dangerous nature: "The Comptroller will not intervene in the decision making process of the audited body while decisions are being made, and will not issue orders to that body to perform any action or to refrain from any action…"

At the time of the vote on the bill in the ministerial legislation committee, the chair of the committee, Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, feared that too many ministers would oppose it, and so she sought to postpone the vote by a month. But ministers Moshe Kahlon and Gila Gamliel, who announced yesterday morning that they would vote against the bill, demanded that the vote should be held straight away, in order to kill the proposed legislation. In the end, Shaked's proposal was accepted, and it was decided to postpone the vote for a month. For his part, when his stance was not accepted, Kahlon left the meeting, calling its discussions "a waste of time."

The bill has only one meaning: the closure of the State Comptroller's Office. If decisions of an audited body cannot be audited as they are made, the decisions will wait until, for example, the National Water Carrier runs dry, and only after the country has stopped using water will it be possible to audit the management of the water economy. Perhaps it will also not be possible to audit the purchase of a fleet of fire-fighting aircraft after a fire disaster, until the threat of fires which comes every fall with the east winds goes away.

A further example: bridges. State Comptroller and Ombudsman Joseph Shapira recently released an audit report on the maintenance of bridges in Israel. The report was published a few weeks after the collapse of a bridge over Road 4, in which the driver of a crane was killed. The Comptroller noted that over 200 bridges in the country were in a poor state, but that Netivei Israel National Transport Infrastructure Company had not utilized the budget designated for dealing with the state of the bridges. Does anyone imagine that a State Comptroller's report on decision making concerning bridge maintenance should be published only after the last vehicles in Israel one day pass under a bridge?

As mentioned, in the session of the ministerial legislation committee chaired by Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, two ministers opposed Smotrich's bill: Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon, and Minister for Social Equality Gila Gamliel. Gamliel explained her refusal by saying that the bill would spell the end of the State Comptroller's Office. "If administrative action cannot be reviewed while it is ongoing, then there is no point in the State Comptroller's Office. Review in real time is important, and vital for the country," she said in an interview with Galei Tzahal (IDF Radio).

Knesset State Control Committee chair MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) voiced fierce criticism of the bill. "This is a dangerous and destructive bill, and in effect it means abolition of the institution of the State Comptroller in a corrupt and lawless country in which no-one is held to account," she said. MK Karin Elharrar (Yesh Atid), who chaired the State Control Committee until recently, said the bill was "another proposal from the school of those who wish to do damage to sound administration and to the watchdogs in the State of Israel, and refuse to accept review as a legitimate procedure in a democratic country," and added, "MK Smotrich's bill testifies to fear and an inability to handle criticism in a businesslike way."

In recent weeks, the State Comptroller approached Knesset members and ministers in an attempt to head off the legislation. It is believed that he met coalition chair David Bitan and Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon on the matter.

The timing of the bill does not look coincidental. The Prime Minister's Bureau did not go out of its way yesterday to defend the state's watchdogs. On the contrary. In recent years, Netanyahu has been on bad terms with State Comptroller Shapira, particularly since Shapira released his report on expenses at the prime minister's residence a month before the 2015 elections.

Almost three years have gone by since then, but things move slowly in Israel. It has taken a long time to investigate and check the Comptroller's findings, so that only last week was a date announced for a hearing in advance of a final decision whether to put the prime minister's wife on criminal trial.

Since the expenses report, Shapira has published more reports that have angered Prime Minister Netanyahu. When Shapira wrote a report on Netanyahu's conduct as minister of communications and that of Ministry of Communications director-general Shlomo Filber - Netanyahu's personal appointee - the prime minister's response was that this was "more fake news, another vain attempt to create an affair out of nothing involving the prime minister." It will be recalled that the probe led to a recommendation by the Israel Securities Authority to indict Filber, who for his part requested the Civil Service Commission to suspend him for three months. But Netanyahu treated the very existence of the audit with contempt.

When the State Comptroller published his report on Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu said the he, unlike Shapira, gave backing to the heads of the IDF, as though Shapira had shown hostility to the army by the very act of drafting the report.

The contents of the State Comptroller's report on local government, due for release on Tuesday afternoon, may not be disclosed by law, but it can be mentioned that it deals thoroughly with many local authorities. Among other things, it covers a large local council in the territories, where the Comptroller looks into one of many dark and dubious corners in the state.

The Comptroller found that some of the local council's powers were being exercised by private bodies, unlawfully. The way the local authority exercised its powers enabled public money (i.e. Israeli taxpayers' money) to be transferred to the hands of local NGOs, in tenders tailored especially for them. That is, part of the audit will apparently indicate that the local authority serves as a conduit for transferring money from the state to an NGO, out of extraneous considerations. The NGO is not named in the report, but it is one that MK Smotrich was instrumental in founding.

If so, even when a State Comptroller's report does not deal with the prime minister at all, as far as most government ministers are concerned, and Netanyahu most of all, the Comptroller's powers should be curtailed as much as possible.

Muzzling the watchdogs – a work in progress:

Bill to forbid publication of police recommendations after an investigation

Status: Passed Knesset first reading

Political appointment of deputy director-general in government ministries

Status: Approved by ministers (no legislation required)

Reduction of number of members of search committees for senior public appointments (making unworthy appointments easier)

Status: Passed by government

Appointment of legal counsel in government ministries without tender

Status: Passed ministerial legislation committee (despite Attorney General's opposition)

Bill outlawing recording of telephone calls

Status: An old proposal recently revived - would make exposure of corruption more difficult.

Reduction of Israel Police Commissioner's salary

Status: Still at the level of a proposal

Bill to forbid investigations of as serving prime minister

Status: Off the agenda – for now

Failure to appoint Civil Service Commissioner

Status: Prime Minister Netanyahu has avoided naming a new permanent Civil Service Commissioner for six months, during which time the government has made important decisions on political appointments.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on November 20, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

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Benjamin Netanyahu  photo: Reuters
Benjamin Netanyahu photo: Reuters
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