The shekel drops / Micha Lindenstrauss, the accidental kingmaker
Micha Lindenstrauss has become the national kingmaker over the past few weeks. The state comptroller is handing down decisions on issues like whether Yohanan Danino is worthy of becoming police commissioner and whether Yoav Galant is worthy of being the next Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.
Thus the power of Lindenstrauss, undoubtedly one of the government’s most powerful functionaries, has risen to new heights.
There are many positive sides to this, as Lindenstrauss has pushed the sleepy office of the state comptroller to the forefront of the fight against public-sector corruption. It’s enough to remember his harsh report on corruption at the Meuhedet health maintenance organization, or his eye-popping reports exposing former Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson’s embezzlement from the National Workers Organization, in order to understand the man’s importance.
Yet despite this, in a democratic country, it makes one uneasy when one institution, or one individual, accrues too much power. This uneasiness grows when that institution begins intruding on territory that is not its own − fields where it lacks oversight power and expertise.
And that’s the feeling one gets from reading the conclusions of the committee Lindenstrauss appointed to examine the relationship between government and big business. The committee’s interim report, which was published exclusively in TheMarker on Wednesday, touches on nearly every aspect of the matter: ministers’ declarations of assets, meetings between ministers and businessmen, lobbyists’ activity in the Knesset, the appointment of board members at government companies, cooling-off periods for public servants, economic concentration, election donations and even the exemption of government suppliers from tenders.
Of that long list, the state comptroller has authority over and expertise in only one item − ministers’ conflicts of interests. That stems from a 1970s decision requiring ministers to give the comptroller a list of their assets. This list is the main tool at the comptroller’s disposal to ensure that ministers do not have any conflicts of interest.
What should be done with this information, and whether it needs improvement − by increasing asset reporting requirements, for instance − is a subject worthy of the comptroller’s attention.
Yet it’s hard to imagine what the comptroller can contribute by delving into the delicate relationship between government agencies and the private sector, or that it is appropriate for an oversight body to determine the government’s policy on this matter.
One full section of the report is dedicated to the relationship between Knesset members and lobbyists. The Knesset itself already tried to address this complicated issue in a bill sponsored by MKs Shelly Yachimovich and Gideon Sa’ar. Since the bill did not prevent most of the inappropriate lobbying practices, the comptroller’s criticism is on target. But it’s the Knesset members who need to fix this unhealthy relationship, by means of appropriate legislation. It’s certainly not the comptroller’s place.
It’s equally hard to understand the section on the highly concentrated nature of Israel’s economy. This section discusses issues like whether there should be a special tax on holding companies’ dividends and whether holding companies should be forbidden to own banks. It even discusses limiting holding companies’ acquisitions and recommends expanding the Antitrust Law.
It’s superfluous to note that none of these matters are the comptroller’s business. It’s superfluous to note that the comptroller doesn’t have the necessary expertise in any of these fields. It’s also superfluous to note that a professional committee, led by Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office Eyal Gabai, is currently discussing economic concentration, including these very issues.
If the comptroller suspects that the Gabai Committee is merely killing time and has no intention of issuing proper conclusions, we agree. But still, the comptroller has no advantage over the Gabbai Committee on this matter. He has only disadvantages − a lack of knowledge and expertise. And he has no right to tell the country what its policy should be.
The comptroller’s spokesman refused to say whether Lindenstrauss would adopt the recommendations. We urge him not to do so. The principle of separation of powers in a democratic country does not jibe with an oversight body setting policy.
If this were to happen, not only Israeli democracy would be damaged. The state comptroller, a clear voice of criticism when it comes to improper management and corruption, would be rendered dumb.
Lindenstrauss risks losing his moral authority to criticize. And given the great importance of his criticism, this must not happen.