Netanyahu: Independent Panels That Vet Top Government Appointees Must Go

Prime minister says system deprives ministers of powers they were elected to exercise; remarks come amid drive by politicians to regain control over appointments and dismissals of senior officials.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the weekly cabinet meeting, February 7, 2016.
Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he wants to do away with the system by which candidates for senior government posts are vetted by an independent search committee, saying the system deprives ministers of powers they were elected to exercise.

“We were elected to govern and part of governing is choosing people,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. His comments came as ministers were readying to approve the appointment of Michal Halperin as Antitrust Authority chief. She had been selected by the kind of search committee Netanyahu wants to disband.

“I reject the process that has taken hold here of a nominating committee. If ministers can’t appoint people, they aren’t ministers. If they err in whom they choose, they will pay for it in the elections,” the prime minister said.

The search panels were created to prevent ministers appointing political favorites rather than the best and most experienced candidates. But the system has come under concerted attack by politicians, as has a similar two-year-old initiative at the Government Companies Authority (GCA) to professionalize and depoliticize the appointments of directors to the boards of state-owned enterprises.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon – who has been pressuring GCA head Ori Yogev to step down – backed Netanyahu. Kahlon said the so-called “A-Team system” for naming directors, which was started and has been strongly defended by Yogev, placed too much emphasis on experience and deterred others from applying.

“On the A Team of directors, for example, Mark Zuckerberg [the 31-year-old CEO and founder of Facebook] wouldn’t be able to join because he doesn’t have 15 years’ experience,” Kahlon noted.

The pressure to oust Yogev has come from the Likud Central Committee as well as the finance minister.

Opposition to the system gathered pace in Likud after Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz’s nominee to head Ashdod Port Limited was rejected by the GCA vetting committee. The nominee, former Hadera Mayor Haim Avitan – a Netanyahu and Katz confidant – was rejected for lack of relevant experience.

“There are a lot of good people who want to apply and serve while they’re holding their current jobs. They aren’t applying, because they don’t want to hurt their positions at their current workplaces if their application is rejected – because word inevitably leaks to the media,” said Kahlon.

Netanyahu added that in “proper government, the public gives you the power to govern. For better or worse, we have to take responsibility for appointments.”

Netanyahu’s remarks come as Kahlon and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked seek to strip an independent advisory committee, headed by retired judge Jacob Turkel, of the power to dismiss top regulators.

The Kahlon-Shaked initiative would end a system in place since 2008. Instead, it would give the authority to the Civil Service Commission committee, which is expected to be more amenable to politicians’ demands.

Their initiative is aimed squarely at Yogev, who was appointed in 2013 by the previous finance minister, Yair Lapid, and whose term doesn’t end until July 2017. The plan was supposed to be discussed at Sunday’s cabinet meeting but was delayed, probably until next week, after Ron Duhl – the Civil Service Commission’s legal adviser – objected and Yogev appealed to new Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and State Comptroller Joseph Shapira.

Yogev and Kahlon have been at odds since the latter took over the finance portfolio nearly a year ago. Kahlon wanted to appoint someone he is close to politically and expressed a lack of confidence in Yogev and his A Team system for appointing directors.

Last August, there was a sharp deterioration in relations when the two failed to come to any understandings on disagreements at a meeting in the finance minister’s bureau. Two weeks ago, Yogev sought to calm matters and invited Kahlon to the annual GCA conference. But Kahlon used the platform to attack Yogev.

Netanyahu’s attitude toward Yogev is less clear. For a long time the two were close politically and ideologically. Yogev was treasury budgets director when Netanyahu was finance minister in the early 2000s and served as his economic adviser when he became prime minster for a second time in 2009.

One version of subsequent events is that Netanyahu felt betrayed when Yogev became a confidant of Lapid, who is a bitter political enemy of the prime minister’s. Others say the two remain close, even though Netanyahu has backed the Kahlon-Shaked initiative.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to questions by press time.