Israel's Rotten to the Core? That's Awful... Oooh, Cheap Coffee

Every year the State Comptroller writes a fat report on Israel's ills. The people howl, then subside. What happens?

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Last week, in a low-key ceremony in Jerusalem, Israeli State Comptroller Joseph Shapira submitted his yearly report to the speaker of the Knesset.

As always it was a thick report, 35 chapters containing thousands of pages, dealing with important issues like tax breaks for big business, companies defaulting on bond debt, the lack of public housing in Israel, and corruption. And inequality, the abuse of natural resources, and economic concentration.

As always the report savaged ministers, civil servants and private corporations. It was rife with disgusting details about lax government oversight that costs the Israeli public billions of shekels each year and exposes them to life-threatening risks.

It was, to say the least, outrageous.

"The Israeli public feels betrayed," Shapira said during the ceremony: People live under crushing overdrafts and heavy tax, while big business gets tax breaks and hoard profits while cutting back jobs - referring specifically to Teva Pharmaceuticals. Later, he spoke of "two peoples, one that pays taxes and one that doesn't have to."

Shapira is often criticized for lacking the pizzazz of his predecessor, Micha Lindenstrauss. He avoids pointing fingers towards specific people (at which Lindenstrauss did not cavil). Yet Shapira's report contains all the elements needed for a public outrage: billions of shekels in unjust subsidies to bus company Egged; billions lost in sweetheart tax for companies; while thousands await housing assistance, public houses are rented out as offices.

Yet it seems outrageous does not necessarily mean outraging. Within two days of lackluster press coverage, media attention to the report ebbed, and the public resumed dealing with the truly important issue of the day: a 5-shekel cup of coffee at Cofix, an upstart if not startup café chain that's caused consternation among Tel Aviv's cafes.

The futility of the state comptroller

Every year it happens. The comptroller issues a report, listing horrors. For two days the nation is downright outraged. Then the nation goes back to business as usual. Nothing changes.

It is hard to explain the role of the state comptroller. He's an observer and ombudsman. But he has no statutory authority under law and cannot force the government to act upon his findings.

This leaves him in the role of a moral public compass, a critic whose only power comes from the willingness of the government to apply his recommendations, which itself depends on public outrage.

In other words: for the government to accept the comptroller's message, first the public has to care.

This, unfortunately, leaves the job with very little influence.

The Israeli public, in general, remains indifferent, and has been reliably so forever. The result is zero accountability. When in 2012, for instance, Lindenstrauss found former Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and former Minister of Interior Affairs Eli Yishai personally responsible for the 2010 Carmel Fires disaster that claimed the lives of 44 civilians, neither stepped down in shame; nor did anybody demand they do so. Steinitz is now minister of Intelligence, International Relations and Strategic Affairs. His personal responsibility for the unreadiness that caused the fire to spread? Forgotten.

This week in Bat Yam, though he's awaiting trial for fraud, Shlomo Lehiani was elected again as mayor. Over the past few years Lehiani had become a favorite subject of the yearly comptroller reports, criticized so much in them that he once complained he the comptroller was "persecuting" him.

There are already signs that the current report will suffer the fate of all the rest. As it turns out, Shapira discovered "significant problems" with the process of selecting directors for the Bank Leumi board, and urged the bank to postpone its annual shareholders meeting, where new board members were due to be elected. The bank, cordially of course, declined.

Lindenstrauss knew how to leverage what little power he had and drum up headlines that made him a thorn in the government's side. Shapira seems to lack that kind of charisma. He is reduced to being a moral compass that no one consults. He is the resident curmudgeon.

But make no mistake. Israel's failure to act on the criticism bears a steep price: A country with no accountability is a country destined to be more corrupt, more negligent, more callous towards its citizens and other peoples. After the dead silence that followed this year's report, the one repercussion we can expect is that next year's report will be worse.

The institution of the watchdog is deathly ill.Credit: David Bachar

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