Analysis

Reshuffling Oversight Panel, Israel's State Comptroller Proves He, Too, Needs Oversight

Now, we need a special comptroller to oversee the comptroller

Matanyahu Englman sworn in as Israel's state comptroller at the Knesset, July 1, 2019.
Emil Salman

The presumed motivation for Matanyahu Englman’s surprise appointment – that the government wanted an accommodating state comptroller – turns out to be true as far as it goes, but incomplete. The first task for which he was chosen was to ensure that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could get tycoons to fund his legal defense. This is critical for Netanyahu, who can’t bear spending his own money.

Though the government has an obvious interest in an accommodating comptroller, this wasn’t the most urgent item on the agenda. And addressing the truly urgent issue required dissolving the special permits committee in the State Comptroller’s Office, even though it’s not clear why its decisions shouldn’t remain valid even if it ceased to exist.

But that’s no obstacle for Englman. In his previous role as director general of the Council for Higher Education, he proved his ability to defy reality by including the settlement of Ariel in the State of Israel on orders from the education minister.

The permits committee did its job properly when it refused to rubber-stamp Netanyahu’s request that tycoons be allowed to fund his legal expenses. Instead, it demanded information, which he refused to divulge despite his lawyer’s promise to the High Court of Justice.

The committee also acted properly by displaying justified anger when Netanyahu accepted a loan from his wealthy cousin before it had even ruled on his request to do so. Yet instead of backing the panel, Englman saw fit to criticize its self-evident demand that Netanyahu stop acting as a law unto himself and repay the money.

Moreover, while the committee explained its reasoning, Englman gave only the bottom line, demonstrating ignorance of how his job actually works. The power of a comptroller’s opinion, like that of a judge, stems not from his authority, but from the reasoning behind it.

Englman apparently assumed that the panel’s members, being people who respect both themselves and their job, wouldn’t accept his conduct. And indeed, two of them resigned, while the chairman’s term is about to end anyway.

This enabled Englman to appoint a committee after his own heart. In his press statement, he lauded himself for the new panel’s diversity in terms of both the members’ ethnic origins and their fields of expertise. But that isn’t the real reason why they were chosen.

The committee handles a very sensitive subject – permitting exceptions to the rule barring ministers from conflicts of interest. Any such conflict could lead a minister to act improperly.Despite this risk, exceptions are sometimes justified and necessary. But granting one is a complex, delicate decision.

Therefore, it’s vital that the committee satisfy two criteria. First, its members must be jurists, because a conflict of interests is a legal concept, so jurists generally understand it better than others.

Second, and more importantly, they must have no connection to politics, political parties or politicians. Otherwise, the people whose job is preventing conflicts of interest could themselves have conflicts of interests.

All previous state comptrollers, who presumably understood their job as well as Englman does, upheld these principles. But Englman’s revolution doesn’t stem from lack of understanding. It stems from a very good understanding of what’s right, and a determination to do the opposite.

Thus his panel contains several non-jurists, and most are members of Netanyahu’s Likud party or rightists connected with other parties or politicians. Had Netanyahu chosen the panel himself, it couldn’t have been better for his purposes. Englman is thus repaying the man who appointed him in hard currency.

But for the public, he’s no gatekeeper; rather, he’s the person the public needs protection from. Now, we need a special comptroller to oversee the comptroller. Or we could be more efficient and just replace him with someone who actually wants to do the comptroller’s job rather than destroying it.

Englman is just an example that helps us understand the post-liberal right’s view of government. For gatekeepers, it wants whitewashers. And the governability it extols is one of caprice, meant to enable elected representatives and their loyal servants to do whatever they please, in defiance of the public welfare.

Like his ideological fellows, Englman is deeply contemptuous of the public. He thinks he can sell it a bill of goods about his motives for appointing this committee. But he’s likely to fail badly. The public isn’t stupid, and it won’t forgive those who treat it with contempt.