Yaakov Neeman (Emil Salman)
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman Photo by Emil Salman
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We can all agree that Israeli cabinet ministers do not top the international ethics rankings, to put it mildly. The large number of scandals, indictments and arrests prove that better than any number of witnesses could.

But it seems this sad reality hasn't made much of an impression on the Ministerial Committee for Ethics, headed by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman. The committee is on the verge of proposing a new ethical code for ministers that turns the original recommendations on which it is ostensibly based into a joke.

Another committee, headed by former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, worked hard to formulate a strict ethical code for ministers and presented its recommendations two years ago. A year ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the job of reviewing those recommendations to the Neeman Committee, whose other members are Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor.

But Neeman and his fellow committee members don't want a strict code that would interfere with their stock market investments, acceptance of gifts and use of government resources for their own political purposes. They want a superficial code that will not disrupt their day-to-day lives, or their careers after leaving office.

One of the issues the committee has avoided discussing is a cooling-off period for ministers. Today, there is no wall dividing politics from business. A minister can finish his tenure on Sunday, and on Monday he can appear as a private businessman before the authorities, representing some wealthy tycoon - or himself. A minister can also accept a senior position in a company even though only 24 hours earlier, he was in charge of determining the fate of that same company, such as by approving a development grant, loan or tax exemption.

And if you think I am exaggerating, let me remind you that only two days after Neeman concluded his term as finance minister in December 1998, he began representing the Eisenberg family in the sale of the Israel Corporation - which earned him an enormous sum in legal fees.

Our politicians knew how to make the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff sit at home for a very long cooling-off period, three full years, between leaving the army and being elected to the Knesset. They also knew how to force senior civil servants to cool their heels for a full year after leaving their government job. But for whom did they forget to mandate a cooling-off period, thereby creating an ethical problem? Themselves.

The working poor?

Poverty is always on the public agenda, and that is a good thing. This week, the governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, said the poverty problem is concentrated in two population groups, the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox ) and the Arabs. The National Insurance Institute's latest poverty report also determined that poverty is deeply rooted in those two sectors: According to the latest data, 53% of Arab families and 57% of ultra-Orthodox families live in poverty.

The problem is that these figures seem a bit exaggerated to me. After all, we're all familiar with the living conditions in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, as well as in Arab towns. Is it logical that more than half of these communities live under the poverty line?

To understand how this could be, I went to the Central Bureau of Statistics. There I learned that the bureau builds a sample which, in its opinion, represents all Israeli families. The sample includes 12,000 families out of 2.3 million. In other words, it is only 0.5% of the total population being studied.

The bureau then sends one of its employees to each of these 12,000 families. She knocks on the door, and if it opens, she enters and conducts the survey.

The employee asks family members how much they earn, and they answer. She then asks to see pay slips. A third produce the pay slips, and two thirds don't.

I asked the government statistician, Prof. Shlomo Yitzhaki, how he knows the figures he collects are accurate. Yitzhaki, the head of the statistics bureau, answered that they check the numbers with data from the Tax Authority and the NII, and it turns out the figures are trustworthy.

But, I asked, what about those who work off the books? After all, everyone knows there are many Haredim and Arabs who don't report all their income, and they certainly won't tell that to the person doing the survey. The tax authorities don't have those numbers either.

Yitzhaki replied that I might be right: He deals only with the official economy, and there may well be an unofficial economy alongside it. But we have no way of measuring it, he said.

At this point I talked to Daniel Gottlieb, the NII's deputy director general of research and planning and the author of the poverty report. Gottlieb said he is aware of the problem and intends to conduct independent research to evaluate the trustworthiness of the data.

So maybe next year we will receive poverty figures that take into account two types of income: official and unofficial.