'The Screaming Was Absolutely Awful': How Netanyahu Defanged the State Watchdog, According to an Ex-spokesman

Shlomo Raz, who retired last year after 12 years as spokesman of the State Comptroller's Office, warns of how the powers-that-be are slowly but surely eating away at the integrity of this important institution

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Netanyahu in 2019.
Netanyahu in 2019.Credit: Gali Tibbon/AP
Gidi Weitz

In 2014, a complaint with a familiar ring to it landed on the desk of State Comptroller Joseph Shapira: suspicion of irregularities in the prime minister’s official and private residences. At the time, Shapira was considered a government-friendly comptroller.

Shapira had been chosen for the post at the recommendation of the Netanyahus’ family lawyer and cousin of the prime minister David Shimron, and he underwent an audition at the official Balfour Street residence before Netanyahu mobilized the Knesset coalition to elect him to the post. Traditionally the role of comptroller involves oversight of the activities of national and local government institutions, politicians and public organizations, by means of audits and investigations, to ensure that they are in full compliance with the law.

Weekend banner.

“When the complaint came in, Shapira looked for a way to avoid dealing with it,” Shlomo Raz – the spokesman of the State Comptroller’s Office for 12 years (he retired last year) and a confidant of the comptrollers – tells Haaretz. “And then a suggestion came up: to transfer the complaint to the attorney general.”

The suggestion was adopted, and the potentially volatile material was forwarded to the attorney general. Shortly after the details were publicized in the media, Raz arrived in Shapira’s bureau in Jerusalem for a routine meeting, together with another senior colleague.

“There were three of us in the room. Then the secretary told Shapira that the prime minister wanted to talk to him,” Raz recalls. “He took the call, and I could hear Netanyahu’s voice through the phone screaming his head off at Shapira, absolutely awful screams. The senior official who was in the room turned totally pale, absolutely transparent. I signaled to Shapira, to see whether he wanted us to leave the room. He gestured with his hand that we should stay.”

What did he look like?

Raz: “He was as white as a sheet, completely cowering.”

What was the screaming about?

“What could be heard in the shouts, more or less, was ‘You promised me that it would be all right’ – that was the spirit of it. Recently I spoke to the other senior official who was in the room and sharpened the event in my memory to make sure I was being accurate.”

Did the penny drop for you as a result of that conversation?

“It dropped then and it dropped again recently, when Matanyahu Englman was selected as state comptroller. Englman wasn’t the first candidate whose name came up. There were a few who preceded him. One of them, a lawyer named Michal Rosenbaum, was considered the favorite. And then, on the evening before the Knesset vote [to choose the new state comptroller], an announcement was made that Netanyahu had decided to go for Englman. I imagine that there was an understanding that ‘it would be all right.’”

Let’s go back to Shapira for a moment. What did you understand when you heard Netanyahu shouting at him?

“It explained to me, for example, the removal of Nahum Levy, who was the comptroller’s adviser on corruption and the investigator of the ‘Bibi Tours’ case,” which investigated suspected irregularities in the funding of Netanyahu’s travels during his time as opposition leader, and which was closed in 2016. “I understood that this was part of a process that was meant to accede to the wishes of the Netanyahu family.”

Burning-hot potato

The Bibi Tours affair was on Shapira’s desk when he took over as state comptroller in 2012. It was a burning-hot potato for the new arrival: an investigation that raised the suspicion that private organizations and businesspeople were funding trips by the Netanyahu family around the world. In the late 1990s, Shapira’s adviser Nahum Levy, the former major general in the Israel Police who was investigating the affair of the overseas trips, had previously headed a fraud squad team that examined another matter, from Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister: the gifts and house-moving affair. Levy recommended placing Netanyahu and his wife on trial, but then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein closed the case for lack of evidence.

The Prime Minister’s Bureau protested when the late Micha Lindenstrauss, who preceded Shapira as state comptroller, placed Levy in charge of the Bibi Tours investigation in 2011. Attorney Shimron and Likud MK Yariv Levin – the perpetual envoy for all Netanyahu missions – asked Lindenstrauss to replace Levy as head of the sensitive investigation, citing what they termed a conflict of interest. Lindenstrauss turned down the request, and Levy plunged into a probe of the financing of the family’s travels. When Shapira arrived, he showed Levy the door.

“At the time, I was captive to the concept that Levy had gone home because of criticism of him from within the State Comptroller’s Office,” Raz admits. “Maybe it has to do with his quiet manner and passive exterior. After the phone call with the shouting I realized that Levy’s ouster was simply part of an understanding between the sides. Long afterward, I ran into a person who worked with Netanyahu, someone I have known for years. He maintained that the condition for Shapira’s appointment was Nahum Levy’s head.”

And before the penny dropped, in Shapira’s first years, did you have the feeling that there was a direct connection between him and Netanyahu?

“There were quite a few calls from the prime minister involving complaints, demands. For example, Netanyahu told Shapira that he objected to issues that were examined as part of his report on Operation Protective Edge [in the Gaza Strip, 2014]. Shapira was very attentive to him.”

Shlomo Raz.
Shlomo Raz.Credit: Emil Salman

Did you feel he displayed weakness?

“I think that one of the big mistakes was made in the hearing for Netanyahu in the Bibi Tours case, before the publication of the report. It was on a Friday. Shapira arrived with his director general, Eli Marzel, and the office’s legal adviser, Prof. Yoram Rabin. Netanyahu entered the room, saw Rabin, and ordered him out. The reason he gave was that Rabin had founded the Movement for Freedom of Information, together with [journalist] Raviv Drucker. I think Shapira made a major mistake by not walking out at that moment. Since when do people decide for the state comptroller whom he will bring with him? It’s unheard of. That event left a mark in the State Comptroller’s Office.”

Israel Hayom’s ‘contribution’

Were there other cases in which you felt that Shapira was hesitant about taking on those in power?

“Occasional complaints arrived over the years about Israel Hayom [the freebie newspaper, considered to be supportive of Netanyahu], asserting that the paper effectively constituted a prohibited contribution to a political personage that went beyond the letter of the law. Lindenstrauss didn’t want to touch the subject, and that was understandable, because at the time Israel Hayom did not seem to be a newspaper whose aim was to serve one person, but one that was fighting against the corruption of [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert.

“Shapira also looked for a way to avoid dealing with the subject, except that by then there was no end of proof that the paper was a Netanyahu tool, a phenomenon that became more acute over time. Some senior officials in the State Comptroller’s Office thought it was in fact a prohibited contribution and that it was our task to delve into it. In my estimation, a review of the subject would have reached the conclusion that Israel Hayom is a prohibited contribution.”

What did you think at the time?

“I admit that I tried to dissuade them. In retrospect, I am convinced that this was unacceptable behavior by the State Comptroller’s Office. Israel Hayom should have been examined as a prohibited contribution.”

You were untrue to yourself.

“I am ready to admit that I was untrue to myself. I was the spokesman, and I realized what the implications of that examination would be. I knew the kind of media and political fire Shapira and the State Comptroller’s Office would come under if we entered that minefield.”

Attorney Shimron recommended that Netanyahu appoint Shapira. After Shapira’s election, was Shimron present in the State Comptroller’s Office more frequently?

“Shimron’s presence was massive. He was present physically and he also sent written material, sometimes directly to the comptroller. I remember one time when I went to Shapira’s bureau after the event where the ombudsman’s report was presented. [The state comptroller also serves as the state ombudsman.] Shapira had stated during the event that he was going to examine expenses of elected officials in Israel and abroad.

“The subject of Netanyahu’s expenses had already gained public attention, and apparently the prime minister was apprehensive that we would examine his. When we were in Shapira’s bureau after the event, the secretary told him that Shimron had called and wanted to speak to him. Shimron didn’t understand why Shapira had suddenly raised that issue.”

In what other instances did Shimron intervene?

“There was a case in which the State Comptroller’s Office examined Likud’s election campaign expenses, and it was found that Shimron had charged the party a low legal fee. I remember quite a sharp argument between Shapira and the staff who worked on the report as to whether this was a prohibited contribution that Likud received from Shimron. They wanted it to be noted in the report as a prohibited contribution, but Shapira vetoed it.”

Cruise, interrupted

Back to 2014 and the prime minister’s residences, in Jerusalem and Caesarea. Shapira tried to sidestep the affair, but in the end the State Comptroller’s Office investigated the subject. The report, dealing with irregularities and exaggerated expenses, was ready for publication toward the end of 2014, but just then Netanyahu shook up the political arena again. He fired then-ministers Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni from the government because of their support for legislation that would curtail the influence of Israel Hayom, and opted for an early election.

Shortly after the Knesset’s dissolution, David Shimron called Shapira and asked him to wait until after the election in March 2015 before publishing the report about the residences. Shapira acceded.

While the report was in limbo, and Shapira was on a private vacation in the Caribbean, Haaretz revealed the favor he had done the prime minister and a furor erupted.

Attorney David Shimron, confidant and cousin of Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Attorney David Shimron, confidant and cousin of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“We spoke following the [Haaretz] report, even though he was on a cruise with a group of friends,” Raz recalls. “I explained to him the implications of the report. I suppose he made his own calculation as to whether it was right for him to be the object of unstatesmanlike behavior by Netanyahu, or whether it was preferable for him to deal with criticism from the media and his staff. He made a decision: to publish the report.”

That episode exemplifies the tension that existed during Shapira’s term as state comptroller (2012-19). On the one hand, a tendency to please the powers that be, and at the same time the need to cope with criticism both external and from within.

“In the end,” says Raz, “the reports were published – both Bibi Tours and the residences and also about Operation Protective Shield. That’s what led the powers-that-be to reach the conclusion that it’s not enough to choose the director [i.e., the comptroller] very carefully, you need a director who will overhaul the whole system from top to bottom, as Englman is doing today.”

We’ll get back to Englman. Did Netanyahu get upset again when the report on the residences was published?

“As far as I know, Netanyahu screamed at him again. Shapira told that story a few times. A phone call was arranged for Saturday evening, and he wasn’t looking forward to it. The director general, Marzel, was in the comptroller’s home and was a partner to the conversation.

“Netanyahu rode roughshod over Shapira in a totally undignified manner. According to what I was told, he said to him: ‘I appointed you.’ Marzel told me after the phone call that he took the receiver and said to Netanyahu: ‘Mr. Prime Minister, you are speaking to the state comptroller – how can you talk to him like that?’”

The state comptroller’s report on the residences morphed into a police investigation and eventually ended with Sara Netanyahu’s criminal conviction of misuse of state funds. The prime minister, for his part, turned his back on the state comptroller, shunned him demonstratively and lambasted him in the media. All the gatekeepers who endangered Netanyahu’s survival would be subjected to the same firestorm.

“My impression was that Shapira was very uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s callous attacks,” Raz says. “He spoke about it many times. The most sensitive issue for him was that Netanyahu ignored him at public events. But even so, the pressure from Netanyahu’s bureau continued unabated – for example, with respect to the financing of his legal defense, which required the authorization of the permits committee. That pressure weighed very heavily on him.”

Making mincemeat of Sharon

Shlomo Raz, 67, was born in Ramat Gan to Holocaust-survivor parents – his father had been saved by Oskar Schindler. Raz was a journalist for many years, including a stint as police reporter for Israel Radio, when he broadcast daily reports from the trial of the suspected Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk. During the period of the Oslo Accords, he was the network’s diplomatic correspondent, and afterward served as TV Channel 2’s correspondent in Washington. Appointed the channel’s Knesset correspondent upon his return to Israel, he uncovered the episode of the double votes, in which the lead role was played by then-Likud MK Yehiel Hazan, who was convicted of fraud in 2006 after casting votes in the parliament both for himself and on behalf of an absent colleague.

In 2007, Raz made the switch to spokesman. “As a Knesset correspondent, I was present at a session with the distinguished state comptroller [and former Supreme Court Justice] Eliezer Goldberg. I remember that Goldberg simply made mincemeat of Prime Minister Arik Sharon – for activities that benefited close associates from Kfar Malal [Sharon’s birthplace] – even though Sharon was a charismatic and powerful figure. I thought that if one day I were to become a spokesman, that’s the place I would want to be. And for the sake of fairness, I will say that there were regular reports about the high salaries in the State Comptroller’s Office.”

His first client was Lindenstrauss, an aggressive, well-connected comptroller who issued lethal reports about senior government officials. In the case of Prime Minister Olmert, as well as in the case of Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson, the reports turned into serious police investigations.

Lindenstrauss investigated the Ashkenazi-Harpaz affair (involving a document allegedly counterfeited by Boaz Harpaz, a reserve army officer, detailing supposed plans by Ehud Barak to launch a mudslinging campaign against Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff at the time), blocked the appointment of Yoav Gallant as IDF chief of staff – and in general his presence was palpable in the corridors of power. Shapira’s appointment, following a rigorous interview in the Balfour Street residence, was effectively the counterreaction of the powers-that-be to the combative period of his predecessor.

“Lindenstrauss established the special ops division at the office, whose task was to uncover governmental corruption,” Raz notes. “Its staff found the diaries of Shula Zaken [Olmert’s private secretary], they wrote fierce reports about Olmert, they investigated irregularities in the prime minister’s residences. Now Englman has decided to dismantle that unit.”

Raz reveals that the ruling hierarchy’s fear of Lindenstrauss generated blackmail attempts. “With his healthy instincts, Lindenstrauss constantly felt that the ruling powers were out to get him, that they were trying to dig up things about him. He always claimed that he was being wiretapped. Experts were sent to search for listening devices in his building, in Jerusalem, and he was furious when none were found. That too was characteristic of him.”

Did he think that people in the government were eavesdropping on him?

“People who are subject to review by his office.”

Was he threatened?

“There were a few cases when a wave of questions from the Knesset suddenly came my way. As spokesman, I had learned that when a number of similar questions arrive within a short time, there is a guiding hand. There were questions about all kinds of ugly and baseless rumors, some of which touched on the realm of [the comptroller’s] personal affairs.

Then-comptroller Shapira, left, with predecessor Micha Lindenstrauss, in 2014.
Then-comptroller Shapira, left, with predecessor Micha Lindenstrauss, in 2014.Credit: Michal Fattal

“One such ugly wave surfaced ahead of submission of the report about irregularities in the Knesset. Reporters alleged that there were embarrassing photos having to do with Lindenstrauss. Why were they never published? I think that the senior figure who briefed [reporters] and tried to threaten the comptroller claimed that the photos existed, but the reporters never saw them. I asked the reporters: ‘Are there photos? Let’s see them and we’ll comment.’”

Late-night threat

Were there threats that you yourself heard?

“I can say that at least on one occasion I heard very ugly rumors, which came in the form of a threat during a late-night phone call: ‘We know A, B, C, D about Lindenstrauss.’”

Please elaborate.

“I am ready to say that it came from a senior figure in the defense establishment, ahead of the publication of the report on the Ashkenazi-Harpaz affair. He said, ‘We know about him [Lindenstrauss], about events in the personal sphere with the participation of a well-known figure in Haifa.’ It was clear to me that this was fabricated information that was intended to intimidate him.”

What was the message? For him to watch his step?

“That was the message. I didn’t even tell him about it, in order to spare him the embarrassment and so that I could deal with it quietly and efficiently. Which is what happened: It was handled quietly and efficiently. The fact is that it was never publicized.”

Did Lindenstrauss withstand the pressures?

“You know, he took pride in having been an acolyte of [Shimon] Peres. That did not prevent him from investigating the President’s Residence, and there was plenty of pressure and requests from Peres’ people about why he needed to check up on them at all. What bothered them most was the examination of the financial outlays in the President’s Residence. But he withstood the pressure.”

Were there politicians that Lindenstrauss handled with kid gloves?

“No, but there were politicians he didn’t like. I think that one of those politicians, whom he respected but did not like, is Ehud Barak. Possibly he even targeted him a little. I remind you that there were several examinations then, one after the other: about Nili Priel’s [Barak’s wife’s] company, about the transfer of Barak’s control of private companies to his daughters, about the suite hired for him in Paris when he visited the Paris Air Show.”

You felt that there was hyper-eagerness regarding Barak’s affairs.

“Yes. The answer is yes.”

Did politicians ever try to tempt you into bringing your influence to bear for their benefit?

“There was a case in the Shapira period, when [Culture] Minister Miri Regev came for a hearing about the report on the celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary. The State Comptroller’s Office checked to see whether tickets had been distributed to political cronies. She had a closed meeting with the comptroller, and when she came out she passed through my office. Out of the blue, she said she wanted to consult with me about her future media adviser, and she asked what was going on with me. How is that to be interpreted? I interpreted it very clearly.”

“It’s worth your while to be on my side.”

“The subtext, as I read it, was, ‘Come on, there’s something for us to talk about.’ On top of that, a few days later, ahead of the broadcast of an item about the report, she sent me a slew of WhatsApp messages, she looked for me urgently. In the end we only spoke after the broadcast.”

Miri Regev.
Miri Regev.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Did you evade her deliberately?

“I didn’t rush to answer her. Finally we spoke, and she said she wanted to be certain I wasn’t giving briefings against her. It looked as though she wanted to go on being in touch to continue the previous conversation.”

How did you interpret this whole exchange?

“I understood it as a message that it would be worth my while to maintain good relations with her. The fact that I wrote myself a memorandum after those conversations says it all.”

With Rivlin, for Rivlin

To succeed Lindenstrauss, two people competed for the position: Shapira and Eliezer Rivlin, then the deputy president of the Supreme Court. Raz reveals something quite astonishing: Behind the scenes, Lindenstrauss tried to influence the political echelons to get Rivlin elected.

“He was very active in the election process,” Raz recalls. “Lindenstrauss spoke unflatteringly about Shapira.”

Did Lindenstrauss disdain him?

“I think he wanted Rivlin to win, because that would glorify both the institution [of the state comptroller] and him [Lindenstrauss] as well.”

What active steps did he take?

“As far as I remember, he was in constant contact with MKs to try to ensure a majority [the Knesset must vote on the appointment of the comptroller], while updating Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. He was very disappointed when the result became known.”

And when Shapira took over, he announced that the era of governmental corruption was over.

“He said that corruption had become extinct by then, that’s so.”

Shapira dissociated himself from Netanyahu to a degree during the second half of his term. The report on the residences was followed by a sharp report on regulatory dispensations that had been granted to Bezeq Telecommunications owner Shaul Elovitch, a friend of Netanyahu, who was then communications minister as well as prime minister. Still, Shapira continued to give well-connected politicians breaks even during the generally more impressive part of his tenure.

“In 2018, we were getting ready to publish a report about the Labor Party primary,” Raz relates. “[Former Labor Party leader Isaac] Herzog was then running for the post of chairman of the Jewish Agency, and Shapira said that publication of the report could hurt him in the race.” The report, which found that Herzog had exceeded the ceiling of expenses permitted by law, was published one day after he was elected chairman.

That wasn’t the only time Shapira changed the timing of a report’s publication. On the eve of last September’s national election, Raz was taken by surprise by his boss’ decision to publish a special report on contracts entered involving the Israel Police, which included a very short chapter on the Fifth Dimension company. The comptroller noted that the moribund cyber firm, which had been headed by Benny Gantz, was exempted from having to participate in bidding for a contract, and had signed a deal worth 4 million shekels ($1.2 million) with the police.

“One day, about the time of the second election [of three consecutive national elections], I suddenly find an email message that a special separate report is about to be issued on police procurements,” Raz recalls. “I was not consulted about the timing of the report and I was not privy to the decision to issue it as a special report. That is extremely rare. I don’t remember cases like that.”

Netanyahu in 2019.
Benny Gantz.Credit: Emil Salman

What had happened?

“Half a year earlier, before the first election, a special report was issued about the crisis in public transportation and the responsible minister, Yisrael Katz [Likud]. A special report is published when there is a sufficiently important subject, so that it won’t get lost in the annual comptroller’s report. The report came out just before the election, because the Transportation Ministry had delayed its responses to the allegations. Katz reacted harshly to the report and to its timing. And then, ahead of the second election, the unit that examined the police procurements started to press for that report to be published.

“In my view, there was no reason to take a marginal issue like that and turn it into a special report. I think Shapira green-lighted it because by doing so he would be able to cool the anger at him in the Likud hierarchy and signal that his actions were balanced. It was clear to me that a report of that kind would also serve the virulent campaign against [Police Commissioner] Roni Alsheich.”

Clash with settlers

Most of the political arena did not suffer during Shapira’s tenure, but one group identified him as a bitter enemy whose wings had to be clipped – the settlers.

Raz: “Their spearhead was MK Bezalel Smotrich [then from Habayit Hayehudi]. There were a few reports that led them to target the State Comptroller’s Office as an institution that needed to be taken over and changed from the ground up. There was a report on Torah-based groups [garinim torani’im – representatives of the national-religious movement who move to certain locales to help bolster people’s religious affiliation], which received millions from Uri Ariel [a cabinet minister from Habayit Hayehudi/Tekuma]. These funds were earmarked for the periphery but went to Torah-based groups in north Tel Aviv.

“There was a report on the Settlement Department [of the World Zionist Organization], the apple of the settlers’ eye. There were lethal reports about the financial management in Habayit Hayehudi. The straws that broke the camel’s back were two reports about the Binyamin District Council [in the West Bank], which transferred funds to organizations identified with Smotrich. That’s when the noises started.”

Noises?

“Smotrich submitted a bill aimed at curtailing the activity of the state comptroller. Suddenly we noticed a strange ritual: Every Wednesday we would see that the bill was on the agenda of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the comptroller would speak with [Justice Minister] Ayelet Shaked, and then the item would not come up for discussion. We took it as a whip, or a sword that was being brandished over the comptroller’s head.”

As Shapira’s term of office drew to an end, it was Smotrich who put forward the candidacy of Englman, who was at the time the director general of the Council for Higher Education. Netanyahu met with the candidate, liked what he saw and dispatched the fixer, Yariv Levin, to promote the candidacy.

Raz: “Englman’s appointment stems from a confluence of interests between Netanyahu and the settlers. Smotrich acted to get a like-minded comptroller elected, after Netanyahu drew the lessons from Shapira’s appointment. His [Netanyahu’s] impression was that Englman would serve him and that, in contrast to Shapira, he would succeed in bending the office’s staff to his will.”

Englman’s arrival in the office prompted Raz to leave. “He intimated that he wanted me to go. Look, I was hired during Lindenstrauss’ term. When Shapira was starting out he didn’t want me, but after we got to know each other he was ready to break down the wall between his bureau and my office. In the case of Englman, my feeling was that it wouldn’t work. In our meeting, Eden Bizman – the new bureau chief and a former adviser to [MK and minister] Naftali Bennett – also took part. He told me that he had learned how the media works from Bennett and from [journalist and former MK] Yinon Magal. I told them that that style is inappropriate for the State Comptroller’s Office, which is a symbol of statesmanship. They shot me back irritated looks, but I truly do believe that.”

‘Culture of lying’

Does Englman see himself as the emissary of Netanyahu and Smotrich, to raze the foundations that were built in the days of Miriam Ben-Porat, Goldberg and Lindenstrauss?

“The answer is yes. In my best judgment, and in the judgment of staff members of the State Comptroller’s Office with whom I am in daily contact, he intends to remake the institution. One of the staff told me recently that a senior person under review said to him defiantly, ‘Why should I care what you’ll say? I’ll go to Englman and I’ll change the report.’ This is a dangerous process. He softens reports and sometimes rips out the heart of them. He is protecting the strong players.”

For example?

“I am familiar with the draft report on the budget deficit, and I am familiar with the final product. Englman removed its heart, which stated that political considerations were involved in the conduct that generated the deficit. Englman is spreading fear. Senior staff who have argued with him went on to receive very aggressive letters from him. He is trying to suppress every move that does not conform to his worldview. Other staff have said that a culture of lying has taken root in the institution.”

That’s a statement that requires an explanation.

“The people who carry out the review know what’s in the draft report and know what the final, published report says. They call that gap [between the versions] a culture of lying. Englman is forging a mendacious narrative. He claims, for example, that the last two comptrollers went out of their minds, that they were oddballs who rather unusually started to insert the names of those under review into the reports.

“But I remember that when I was still with Israel Radio, in a report published ahead of the 1992 election, Miriam Ben-Porat mentioned names linked with Likud and Ariel Sharon in her reports. Those are the reports that featured in the campaign of the Labor Party under Yitzhak Rabin. And Eliezer Goldberg inserted names in his report about the political appointments made by Tzachi Hanegbi [as environment minister, 2001-03]. When you don’t name names and don’t ascribe personal responsibility – you are actually emasculating the review.”

Matanyahu Englman.
Matanyahu Englman.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Raz sees no points of light in the current comptroller’s approach. “Englman talks about constructive criticism. I have no idea what that means. He decided to do away with real-time reviews. He delayed the publication of the report about coping with disease outbreaks. During the first wave of the coronavirus [this past spring], members of his staff wanted to start collecting material with a view to writing a report on how the pandemic was handled, but most of the staff was furloughed. If there were a different comptroller, we would now have at least interim findings about the government’s handling of the epidemic. That’s what’s expected of a gatekeeper.

“In the second Lebanon war [in 2006], two weeks after the fighting started, teams from the comptroller’s office were already examining the deployment of the home front, and the interim findings were submitted a few months after the war ended. Experience shows that it’s significant that decision-makers know that they are being checked in real time.”

Can the senior staff fight back and prevent the counterrevolution?

“My friends were always curious about what went on in the State Comptroller’s Office, and I always told them that I could rely on the staff, especially the senior staff, to be able to safeguard the institution. Today I can say that I was apparently wrong.”

How so?

“Because I am getting too much information to the effect that senior staff in the institution are toeing the line. I am disturbed by the fact that senior figures are accepting his [Englman’s] policy. In my view, they must fight him over their credo. There are senior officials there who understand that he is completely remaking the institution, but they are not standing firm the way they did during periods of other comptrollers.”

Do you think the Knesset should remove Englman?

“Look, the state comptroller’s position is one of the most significant in the country. He is a gatekeeper with a mission. Few people know that the comptroller is responsible for the most classified reports on the most sensitive issues. Shin Bet, Mossad, the Atomic Energy Commission – besides the prime minister, those reports go to only two MKs: the chairmen of the Knesset State Control Committee and the Foreign Relations and Defense Committee. In the past, when I was still a reporter, it bothered me that the heads of committees of one kind and another had access to these reports. I am mentioning this to make it clear how important it is for this position to be held by someone who has the public interest at heart.

“After my retirement, I spoke with people in the political arena, both in Kahol Lavan and in Labor. In those talks the need arose for them to make Englman’s removal a condition in the coalition talks. Some of them agreed. In my opinion that is an obligatory step for the good of the country.”

Responses

Haaretz appealed to the various offices and individuals mentioned by Shlomo Raz in the article. These are their responses:

The Prime Minister’s Office stated that “the depictions are incorrect.”

The State Comptroller’s Office said: “Regrettably, Mr. Shlomo Raz is continuing his campaign of slander against the institution of the state comptroller, because of personal interests and a feeling of frustration due to his retirement, all of which is familiar to everyone who knows the man. His personal comportment, which is attested to by many in the State Comptroller’s Office, casts a heavy shadow over his credibility, and we are sorry that lies cited in his name are presented as ‘exposure of the truth.’

“It is a pity that Mr. Raz does not go into detail about the circumstances of his retirement. It is not recalled that he was meticulous about objectivity as the institution’s spokesman, allowing himself on its official platforms to make statements of a political hue in accordance with his personal agenda. These defects, which are an expression of total politicization and the absence of the statesmanlike approach required of public servants, no longer exist in the State Comptroller’s Office, and we take pride in that. The allegations in themselves are shallow, as Mr. Raz was never engaged in reviewing and lacks knowledge and understanding of the field.

“The following are the actual facts: State Comptroller Englman is an accountant by training and has a rich professional background in the realm of auditing and public administration, and served as director general of the Technion and of the Council for Higher Education. Englman was elected in a secret vote by the Knesset in accordance with the law.

“In regard to the naming of names [in official reports], the policy of most of Israel’s state comptrollers (including in the period of state comptroller Goldberg) was that individual names should not be mentioned as part of the review procedure. That is also the custom in the world of professional auditing and it is the custom followed by state comptrollers everywhere, as the review deals with the performance of the body under review and not with specific individuals. In this regard, the present state comptroller is acting in accordance with progressive international standards.

“As for the war against corruption, it is continuing and will continue even without Raz’s announcements (and leaks) to the media. The staff of the special ops unit are continuing with their work and are expected to keep on with it, with reviews in matters of corruption and probity having been and continuing to be part of the activity of all the institution’s units. At the state comptroller’s directive, the unit itself was converted to deal with the cyber and digital realms.

“Concerning the reports, Comptroller Englman certainly makes changes in the drafts submitted to him, as this is his job and the purpose of his position. A reading of more than 90 reports totaling about 8,000 pages would show them to be trenchant documents that have uncovered deficiencies in a multitude of areas.

“Regarding the coronavirus crisis, as reported, and in accordance with the comptroller’s policy, 15 reviews are currently being carried out. We aspire to marshal some of the findings soon, so that they will serve the decision-makers to draw conclusions. The rest of the welter of lies uttered by Raz, who is wasting his time in retirement with gossip and slander of the institution of the state comptroller, are unworthy of comment. We wish him good health and hope he finds interest and a new challenge in his life.”

MK Bezalel Smotrich: “Raz’s conduct – during his employment in the State Comptroller’s Office, he illegally leaked material embargoed for publication from an as yet unpublished report, earned 50,000 shekels [about $14,000] a month as manager of a unit even though he did not manage a single person, and also retired with a rank above the position’s maximum at the public’s expense and now, ironically, is sullying the state comptroller who is fighting the phenomenon – just goes to show how great a change the State Comptroller’s Office needs to undergo and [how much it needs] to be subject to review.

“I take pride in my attempts to repair the blemishes in this important institution, promise to persist in these efforts and am delighted that the present comptroller is correcting very much of what his predecessors and their staffs, among them Raz himself, marred.”

Eli Marzel and attorney David Shimron declined to comment.

Minister Miri Regev and former State Comptroller Joseph Shapira did not respond to Haaretz’s request for comment.

Comments