Careful, the Minister Is Taking an Interest

After a year of showing scant interest in the authority's problems and not appearing at any of the general assembly (board of directors) sessions that manage the agency, Hanegbi arrived at a meeting and demanded that members help him to dismiss Vardi.

The Israeli government has quite a long tradition of political intervention by cabinet ministers who have tried to meddle in the business of professional bodies and even dismiss executive directors of these organizations. Now, in addition to the political intervention, there is another dimension: Threats to the continued existence of a professional body.

The new tactics have been introduced by Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who wants to fire Aharon Vardi, head of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA), which is directly accountable to the ministry. A few months ago, Hanegbi began to make arrangements for the transfer of the authority's budget to his ministry, instead, as had been done previously, to the authority itself. The move, which the Finance Ministry has already approved in principle, will enable Hanegbi's ministry to control a considerable portion of the the authority's funding resources.

While working on this new budget route, the minister also began to voice dissatisfaction with Vardi's performance. Of course, Hanegbi is entitled to criticize the performance of the executive director of a government agency and to take measures for his replacement, but only when there are valid reasons for doing so. Two weeks ago, it emerged that Hanegbi is not content with using accepted methods for achieving such a goal.

After a year of showing scant interest in the authority's problems and not appearing at any of the general assembly (board of directors) sessions that manage the agency, Hanegbi arrived at a meeting and demanded that members help him to dismiss Vardi. Hanegbi threatened that if he did not receive their cooperation, the authority would be denied budgetary assistance - a serious threat especially considering the its weak fiscal situation. At the meeting, and later through the media, Hanegbi promised he would preserve the INNPPA's independent status. In view of the threat that the authority's budget could be squeezed dry if the directors did not help Hanegbi fire an executive director who enjoys the board's trust, the promise appears dubious.

Hanegbi claimed he wanted Vardi dismissed due to his responsibility for the authority's fiscal state and its poor working relations. However, most of the general assembly's members, who are nature conservation professionals, agree that the principal cause of the INNPPA's financial crisis is the sharp drop in the number of visitors to Israel's national parks and nature reserves; the visiting fees are a significant portion of the the authority's revenues.

If Hanegbi were really concerned about the INNPPA's situation, why has he not said anything about it until now, and why did he not convene the general assembly at least once to discuss the agency's state of health?

It appears that Hanegbi is acting like many politicians who try to appoint cronies to the bodies they are in charge of or to see to the interests of the members of their own political party. However, Hanegbi has encountered stiff resistance. The minister has demanded that the INNPPA reinstate one of the directors of its national parks division, who is also a member of the Likud's central committee. In addition, the authority's administration claims that the minister's bureau has asked that implementation of orders to shut down banquet halls that have operated without a permit at national park sites, but whose owners have close ties with the Likud, be halted. The requests have been met with Vardi's flat refusal. The environment minister, meanwhile, has refused to comment on these claims by the INNPPA's administration.

It is still unclear what will be the outcome of the dispute between the Vardi, who maintains that his dismissal is unjustified, and Hanegbi. One thing, however, is clear. There is a more basic problem: The inability of a major agency like the authority to retain its independence in the face of aggressive intervention from politicians.

The prime revenue source of the INNPPA, which is a result of the 1998 merger of the Nature Reserves Authority and the National Parks Authority, is supposed to be tourism. Thus, the INNPPA is almost totally dependent on a factor over which it has no control. It is this dependence that has led to the current financial crisis, which has now become a weapon that a politician is using to pressure the authority's administration.

This approach must be radically changed because the INNPPA is not supposed to be an agency that has to justify itself economically like some government corporations. Protection of sites like Masada or the preservation of Mount Carmel National Park is a vital task which requires a guaranteed basic budget regardless of revenue earned from tourists. Such revenue, when it exists, can be added to the basis budget and reinforce the INNPPA's capacities.

An additional vital measure that must be taken is to ensure that appointments to the INNPPA's general assembly be professional with broad representation for public bodies, so that politicians will not try to introduce their cronies into the general assembly and thereby end the agency's independence. The environment minister must supervise the INNPPA's activities and must be involved in the formulation of its policies, but only on condition that his involvement is coordinated with a professional, autonomous general assembly.