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One of the senior members of the professional staff of the Environment Ministry who recently participated in a discussion with inspectors working in the ministry says that during a break in the proceedings, he had the feeling that he was attending a meeting of the Likud Central Committee. The inspectors talked mainly about what was going on the party and very little about the problems of pollution and how to cope with them.

This anecdote illustrates the current situation of the Environment Ministry, which for a lengthy period had been spared the pernicious influence of political appointments. Things changed after the arrival of the present minister, Tzachi Hanegbi. He is deeply engaged with political appointments, so much so that last week the Movement for Quality Government in Israel filed a complaint against him to the chairman of the Central Elections Committee. The complaint came in the wake of an ad in an internal Likud paper that praised Hanegbi for the many appointments he had obtained for the party.

When Hanegbi took office, several members of the Likud Central Committee approached him to ask about the possibility of getting work in the ministry. According to the minister, he explained to them that it was impossible to appoint people just like that, because nearly all the positions in the ministry require prior experience and university education, on top of which there is a procedure involving public tenders.

In time, however, Hanegbi found ways to appoint more and more Likud activists to a surprising range of positions in the ministry and in bodies connected to it. People with connections in the Likud or with the minister were made inspectors, advisers in various fields and chairpersons of bodies such as the authority in charge of Israel's streams. Hanegbi's predecessors also brought political activists into their bureaus, sometimes booting out a serving director-general, but none of them packed the ministry with appointments.

A few months ago, Ha'aretz asked Hanegbi for his reaction to a list of appointments with ties to the minister and also asked him to explain the justification for their choice. Hanegbi replied that the appointments were made subject to the guidelines of the Civil Service Commission and, if needed, also had the approval of the Revivi Commission, which deals with senior appointments in government ministries. Sources in Hanegbi's bureau maintained that inspectors who were hired for the Green Police - a body run by the Environment Ministry - had to go through examinations and that only a few of several dozen who applied were accepted.

In his response to the Likud's internal paper Hanegbi sounds especially proud of his achievements: "Whenever I found it possible to offer one of our members a position that suited his qualifications, I asked him to submit his candidacy for the post. The Likud cannot be in a position of preaching a particular policy and then, when the time comes to implement it in practice, find itself incapable of exerting influence."

Even if Hanegbi was serious about the suitability of people, it is not clear what the connection is between the Likud's policy and outlook, and preventing pollution of the sea or dealing with hazardous materials, or why a member of the Likud should be preferred to an official from the ministry who submitted his candidacy but found himself in an unequal position, as his rival for the position was favored by the minister and his bureau.

The true test of Hanegbi's contention that the appointments meet professional criteria lies in the influence that the appointments policy has on the professional staff in the ministry, who constitute the most important element in ongoing activity and in shaping policy as well. The reaction of some of these people shows that they are starting to feel that the ongoing operation of the ministry is being harmed. Over and over, they say, they encounter a situation in which unqualified people hold operational positions and appointees who are functioning only partially. The professionals have the feeling that every tender and every appointment in the ministry has to be filtered carefully by the minister's bureau, which will make sure to rule out anyone who is not close to Hanegbi in one way or another.

A genuine danger of conflict of interest exists as well, such as in cases in which Likud members employed by the ministry are asked to deal with polluters who have ties to the party. This is an especially sensitive issue in the Environment Ministry, which by definition constitutes opposition to other ministries and to development entrepreneurs, whose activity it must limit or review.

If Hanegbi continues as environment minister in the next government, too, and does not revise his appointments policy, the Environment Ministry can be expected to sustain long-term damage. New professional forces will not find a place in the small slot held by the members of the Central Committee, while the professionals in the ministry will find it increasingly difficult to take up new positions and take advantage of their accumulated experience. The reactions of Hanegbi show that he intends to continue his activity with unrelenting momentum.