Netanyahu's New Government Watchdog Plans to Shutter Anti-corruption Wing

Matanyahu Engelman is bent on revolutionizing his office, including positive statements on those under review and abolishing the unit that handles suspected corruption in higher offices

Engelman gives a press conference after winning the race for state comptroller, June 3, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Less than a month after assuming the position of state comptroller, Matanyahu Engelman is bent on revolutionizing his office, taking a softer approach toward all branches of government, with a downshift in addressing corruption in high places.

Some reports drafted by the economic department and defense establishment divisions in his office, both completed ones and those in their final stages, were recently sent to him for approval. Engelman returned them to the authors with an unusual demand: incorporate some positive statements about the agencies covered in these reports.

A source who saw the demand told Haaretz that several senior officials at the State Comptroller’s Office expressed their surprise at the request, the likes of which they had never encountered. “That is not the comptroller’s role,” a source familiar with this issue said. Another cynically suggested redefining Engelman’s role as “state praiser.”

Haaretz has also learned that Engelman wants to abolish the unit that handles special cases. In recent years, this unit has mainly dealt with cases of suspected corruption or breach of ethics in higher government echelons. The unit was established by the former comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, who declared that he was determined to intensify the fight against corruption. During Lindenstrauss’ term, the unit addressed former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s conflict of interests, culminating in police investigations in the cases of the Investment Center and Bank Leumi.

The unit also looked into Olmert’s political appointments as well as irregularities at the President’s Residence. It published scathing reports about the State Prosecutor’s Office and the police, pointing to irregularities in the Israel National Roads Company and excessive salaries at the Bank of Israel.

During the term of the last comptroller, Joseph Shapira, the unit examined irregularities at the Prime Minister’s Residence, an investigation that ended in the criminal conviction of Sara Netanyahu.

At meetings, Engelman proposed that from now on, members of this special unit oversee reports coming out of his office. Sources in the office expressed hope that Engelman would decide not to change the unit’s purpose. “He did come here with a well-formed worldview, but perhaps with time he’ll change his opinion and leave this unit intact,” one of the sources said.

Sources say that Engelman asked senior officials in his office to change how they prepare their annual workplans, which determine the entities and issues that will be investigated in the coming year. Engelman requested that officials engage the agencies they wish to monitor in dialogue as they prepare the workplan, so that the agencies would have a say regarding the objectives of the oversight.

Until now workplans have been prepared independently, with targets of oversight chosen according to their importance and public interest. Engelman’s change “is simply something that’s forbidden,” said a person who previously held a senior post in the office. “There’s a concern that under this plan, government agencies would navigate the oversight process to places that are more amenable to them.”

The new comptroller’s demand to compliment the targets of his oversight, his guidelines to coordinate workplans and objectives with them and his changes for the unit that focuses on corruption look like the practical expression of his declaration of intent before he was chosen for the post.

“The comptroller’s role is to deal with oversight, not law enforcement,” he said in an interview with the daily Israel Hayom, adding that the “main challenge of this role is to foster cooperation with institutions that are subject to oversight. Oversight should not just point to failures but should encourage excellence and proper management. The way to do this is for the oversight to show respect for the monitored bodies, leaving them free to make decisions. Criticism should be expressed respectfully, to be used as a tool by managers. One need not intervene in every aspect and seek to change the state or the government.”

Shapira tread softly at first with regard to senior echelons but his actions later put him in conflict with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In January 2015, Haaretz revealed that Shapira was delaying the publication of a report about the Prime Minister’s Residence, following a request by Netanyahu’s attorney David Shimron to delay the report until after the March election. Following the publication of the article, the report was released before the election.

Since then the relationship between Netanyahu and Shapira has soured. “The prime minister is ignoring me at conferences, not looking me in the eye,” said Shapira in an interview with the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. Other reports that raised the prime minister’s ire related to suspicions of double billing (the Bibi-tours case) and the political leadership’s failures during the 2014 Gaza war.

Engelman, an accountant, is the first comptroller in three decades who is not a former judge. He previously held the role of chairman of the Council for Higher Education, after heading the council’s planning and budgeting committee. Before that he was the head of the Shoham Local Council and the director general of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

Before he was chosen as the coalition’s choice for comptroller, Netanyahu associates looked at several other candidates, including former police official Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yaakov Borovsky and retired judge Sefi Alon, who had previously assisted the defense team hired by Netanyahu in his pending criminal cases.

The State Comptroller’s Office said in response: “The incoming comptroller is spending his time thoroughly studying the ways in which the Comptroller’s Office and the Public Complaints Commission work. In the course of this effort many meetings are held, involving in-depth discussions. The conception of oversight and the formation of courses of action and a plan for allocating human resources will be formulated at the end of this process.”