Is Israel's Watchdog a Puppet in the Hands of Netanyahu?

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira planned to release a potentially damning report on spending at the prime minister's residence two months after the election.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with State Comptroller Joseph Shapira at a meeting on the Carmel fire disaster, August 7, 2012.Credit: Emil Salman

A state comptroller’s report on spending by the prime minister’s residences was ready for publication weeks ago, but State Comptroller Joseph Shapira planned to release it only in May, two months after the election, as part of his regular annual report. That, more or less, is what he told officials in his office before going on vacation.

He thereby continued the practice he adopted immediately upon taking office – doing anything to please Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man to whom he owes his not obvious promotion from anonymous district court judge to prominent, influential official.

But anyone who knew Shapira knew that the moment the report’s delay became public knowledge, he would feel pressured to announce its imminent publication. Public pressure will push him to issue the report before the election, Haaretz wrote last Friday, citing people who knew the comptroller. For while Shapira is willing to be Netanyahu’s obedient servant in private, he doesn’t want the public to learn what everyone in his office already knows. “To us, it’s already clear that he’s a marionette whose strings are pulled from outside the office,” a person familiar with his work said this weekend.

It’s been years since Israel has had such a weak comptroller, one so convenient for those in power. His three predecessors – Miriam Ben-Porat, Eliezer Goldberg and Micha Lindenstrauss – issued harsh reports on key governmental power centers that led to police investigations, trials and convictions of senior public servants. But Shapira broke sharply with this tradition. After three years in office, it’s hard to cite any contribution he has made to the battle against government corruption.

Even his office’s press statements don’t always conform strictly to the truth. Take, for instance, the issue of the bottle deposits that Sara Netanyahu allegedly pocketed, though the money actually belonged to the state.

Neither Shapira nor Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein wanted to deal with this issue, just as neither wanted to deal with the taxpayer-financed garden furniture that somehow ended up in the Netanyahus’ private home in Caesarea. The two also collaborated to protect their boss in the so-called Bibi-Tours affair, which involved overseas flights by Netanyahu paid for tycoons or nonprofit organizations. When Netanyahu chose his government’s gatekeepers, he knew what he was doing.

Nevertheless, there’s one difference between Weinstein and Shapira: The latter doesn’t hesitate to mislead the public in an effort to preserve his collapsing image – as he did a week ago by issuing a press statement claiming that he had referred the bottle deposit issue to Weinstein, thereby absolving himself of responsibility.

Justice Ministry officials charged last weekend that this press release was false, adding that they had never before encountered such a blatant untruth from someone for whom the truth is supposed to be sacred. “And to think that he served as a judge,” one official said.

In reality, they said, Weinstein and Shapira had agreed that the comptroller would probe the issue and then tell the attorney general whether he found any evidence of criminal conduct. But that never happened.

In a normal country, the comptroller’s office would have gotten to the bottom of the bottle issue, since it is the office most suited to the job. Instead, Shapira evaded the issue on the pretext that Sara Netanyahu isn’t a government official, so the comptroller has no authority to investigate her. Yet the State Comptroller Law explicitly authorizes the comptroller to investigate “any person or organization that, in the absence of a contract, has possession of state property or manages it or supervises it on the state’s behalf.”

Shapira was appointed comptroller with help from Netanyahu and two of the prime minister’s cronies, attorneys David Shimron and Yechiel Gutman. Shapira then made Gutman’s son an aide to his office’s director general, and the younger Gutman is now considered the office’s strongman.

Shimron is the one who asked Shapira not to publish the report on spending by the prime minister’s residences until after the election. Shapira had been leaning toward acceding to this request, until Haaretz’s report on the matter forced him to reverse course – at least for now.

On Sunday Shapira announced that his office was “preparing” to publish the report. It would be interesting to know what these preparations consist of. A spine transplant? Therapy to cure his fear of people in power?

“Keep watching,” a person who knows the comptroller well recommended on Sunday. “The minute Shapira returns from abroad this coming weekend, a blitz aimed at preventing the report’s publication will begin. It’ll be interesting to see who he submits to – the public interest or Netanyahu and his cronies, to whom he owes his job.”