Cutting Red Tape by Crossing the Fine Line

This week, the prime mister's bulimic attempt to swallow the public planning administration into the black hole of his office was temporarily halted. Not because Sharon understood he was endangering planning in the country. The vote was postponed, after all, only to next week.

This week, the prime mister's bulimic attempt to swallow the public planning administration into the black hole of his office was temporarily halted. Temporarily. And not because Sharon understood he was doing something improper, endangering planning in the country. The vote was postponed, after all, only to next week.

Sharon did not invent the hunger to annex the planning apparatus to the Prime Minister's Office. This foul idea came up in Yitzhak Rabin's office, when his energetic director general, Shimon Sheves, was busy leading national infrastructure development. Rabin himself referred to treasury officials as "nails without heads." The bureaucracy annoyed him. Since his government made a breakthrough and set a sane set of national priorities, it is difficult to criticize his impatience. Nonetheless, the line between eagerness to take action and smashing proper public administration is very fine. Benjamin Netanyahu's director general, Avigdor Lieberman crossed over it with a brutal boot, when he wanted to promote "national projects" as did Yossi Kucik, Ehud Barak's director general, who proudly presented the planning authority in the PMO, and Silvan Shalom, who reinvented the Economic Arrangements Law to promote national projects - with the intention of rapidly rezoning land for construction.

The key to crossing the line is found in that combination of words "cutting red tape" which eludes prime ministers and their directors general. In the best case, they find it difficult to understand why shortening the planning procedures is bad, and could cause irreparable damage to the economy and society, since all planning, for every project, is part of a complex process that involves many elements and professional examination at every stage over the period. In the worst case, cutting the red tape is a cynical camouflage for circumventing proper public administration and exploiting the power of government to benefit cronies.

Lately a new mantra has been added to the mix: "infrastructures as fulcrums for growth." That's mostly heard around the finance minister, who is doing everything he can to enable building contractors to put up new apartments on every hill and under every tree - unless of course they get in the way and they can be uprooted. This mantra is also deceiving. It is based on macro-economic studies done a decade ago, which showed a direct correlation between infrastructure and growth. But those studies did not claim that the correlation is automatic, as if every infrastructure, whether necessary or not, will result in growth, or will necessarily provide work for the locally unemployed.

Indeed, in the 1980s, infrastructure investment lagged behind and was considered the bottleneck of development, as Rabin called it himself in his day. But meanwhile, that bottleneck has been opened, and many infrastructure projects have gotten underway. However, even if these new roads, railway lines and other infrastructure projects are vital, those profiting from them are no more than a few major contractors who employ foreign workers. When it's a BOT project (Build, Operate, Transfer), by a private entrepreneur, with government subsidy, most of the government money leaks out.

At a time of a recession deeply rooted in the political circumstances, it is nothing more than a con to sell the idea that growth is just around the corner because of artificial investment in infrastructure projects.

And that fraud, documented in a highly publicized memo prepared by Avigdor Yitzhaki, director general of Prime Minister Sharon's office and meant to justify transferring the planning department to the PMO, is a deceitful disguise resembling a sorrowful parody of a particularly grotesque costume warehouse from the days of historic Mapai. Yet even all the damage done by that mendacity is no match for the danger of corruption hidden in the folds of the garment. Every planning decision, everywhere in the world, is a way to enrich legitimate business people. The planning mechanisms are the most sensitive of all, and must be energetically protected from corruption.

This isn't petty corruption, like bribing a city official with a few thousand shekels to make him turn a blind eye to an illegal porch. This is a growing lacuna because the interior minister hasn't found a single public official worthy of replacing Dina Rachevsky, the former director of the Planning Administration; and because the finance minister wants to find every way possible to hand over cheap land to contractors and rezone lands that the High Court and the recession have meanwhile prevented from being turned into concrete; and because Sharon, who is unafraid of anyone and of anything, is grabbing whatever he can when it comes to planning.

If the Planning Administration is moved to the PMO, the public will have no way of knowing what is going on there. Sharon and his cronies will make every decision, and the professional views will be silenced. One does not need a highly developed imagination to realize what will happen. Not far from here, in Italy, public broadcasting and planning were destroyed in the very same manner. The Israel Broadcasting Authority is already a miserable department in Sharon's office, but that's not where the big money is located. It's in planning.