A Pink Slip Instead of a Commendation

In any normal country, Income Tax Commissioner Yoni Kaplan would receive a commendation for distinguished service. But instead, Finance Minister Silvan Shalom wants to dismiss him.

In any normal country, Income Tax Commissioner Yoni Kaplan would receive a commendation for distinguished service. A little more than two years ago, he was given charge of a paralyzed income tax system that had been adversely affected by false accusations leveled against the previous commissioner, Doron Levy. The interpersonal relationships within the Income Tax Authority were in bad shape, everyone was at war with everyone else and tax collection services were at a worryingly low point.

Kaplan brought the division back up to snuff, put everyone back to work, and this year managed to do the incredible: to meet tax collection projections despite a severe recession and a downturn in business activity. So what else is required to satisfy the boss, meaning the minister of finance?

Silvan Shalom, however, sees things differently. Instead of heaping praises on Kaplan, he wants to dismiss him. Why? Because Kaplan is not a yes-man. He has ideas and he has principles; he is a professional, with objectivity, which doesn't suit Shalom very well.

The post of "income tax commissioner" is perhaps the most sensitive job in our economic system, because the commissioner deals with monetary laws. He has very broad legal authority and unlimited discretion concerning the tax obligations of each and every one of us.

It is fitting that his appointment is made, as the law requires, by the government, so that he will not be beholden to the minister of finance, much like, say, the statutory appointment of the supervisor of banks (by the governor of the Bank of Israel). The commissioner is also responsible for the appointment of hundreds of people to key positions in the ranks of the Income Tax Authority, and in this context as well there are some fairly complicated pressures. Hence, when aides to the finance minister approach the income tax commissioner with a request that he meet with a well-known politician, or a mayor, the commissioner has a major problem. What is he to understand by this? Is he to treat this person differently?

But the possible dismissal of Kaplan is not the only problem in the Finance Ministry these days. People there are walking around with bowed head and bad feelings. There's a serious dearth of senior staff, because no one has been appointed to oversee either state budgets or state income. The moment Avi Ben-Bassat and Tzippi Gal-Yam resigned, the ministry was left without real expertise in the macro-economic realm, one of its primary spheres of activity. The number of meetings, debates and arguments has dropped markedly. Most decisions are taken by Silvan Shalom and Ohad Marani, the ministry's director-general.

Senior ministry staffers have expressed themselves in severe and despairing terms the like of which I haven't heard there in a long time, noting that one of the reasons they were motivated to work at the ministry in the first place is the "brainstorming" that was a fixture under previous finance ministers and directors-general. Once upon a time they would engage in disputations on a high level, with the minister present. New ideas would emerge, and there was cross-fertilization; its absence, for them personally and for economic policy, is palpable - like an insufficiency of breathable air. Instead, the ministry is infused with an atmosphere of fear and the settling of accounts, which the unjustified dismissal of Kaplan only exacerbates.

The moment Shalom announced the extension of Kaplan's term by only three months, he caused great harm to the tax collection system, because now everyone knows that Kaplan is a "lame duck," someone whose term will soon be up. So why listen to him? Why work hard to collect for a boss who'll soon be gone anyway? Not only that, but Shalom doesn't have an agreed-on candidate for the job, suggesting that we are in for an ugly race subject to political pressures from every side. And then, when the new income tax commissioner takes up his position, the free-for-all battle will start again, because today no one will welcome Udi Barzilai or Gary Agron with open arms. Hence the damage done to tax collection is only going to get worse.

Silvan Shalom can still salvage the situation. He does not lack public courage. He hasn't announced Kaplan's actual termination, merely an extension of his term for only three months. In the near future, he could still announce to the public that he has reviewed the matter again and decided to extend Kaplan's term for another year or even two, for the good of the system, of tax collection, and for the minister's own good as well.