Benjamin Netanyahu has been Israel’s prime minister for the last seven years. His position is unassailable. Nobody poses a threat to his rule today. Yet Netanyahu is a weak prime minister. He has difficulty making hard decisions, leading bold moves in practically any area, and can’t seem to manage to leave a stamp on history. His personal weakness translates into a governance problem, for which Netanyahu blames the whole world and its dog – just not his weak personality structure.
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Week in and week out, new enemies of Israel pop up. In the last move it was the artists who dare to publish books on romance between Jews and Arabs, or put on plays that do not toe the official Zionist line. Before that it was civilian society organizations that found themselves upgraded to traitors for accepting donations from abroad (Netanyahu also accepts gigantic donations by way of the support of Sheldon Adelson, but who’s counting?) or because they dare to disagree with Israel’s policy on the occupied territories.
The shocking “moles” campaign, which bordered on incitement to harm people who think otherwise than the right-wing circles do, passed without comment from Netanyahu. The 22 years that have passed since his speeches of incitement in Zion Square, Jerusalem on the eve of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder have not helped Netanyahu understand the dangerous price of incitement in a democratic state.
And this week too, another new enemy emerged: the government officials. His argument: Because of the officials Netanyahu cannot rule and cannot make decisions.
The attack on government officialdom arose because of one official, a Netanyahu associate actually, the head of the Government Companies Authority, Ori Yogev. He had the gall – heavens to Betsy – to block political appointments by ministers at government companies in order to improve management of these companies and root out corruption. The many corruption cases – at Israel Roads (formerly Maatz), the Israel Electric Corporation, Israel Railways, Ashdod Port, etc. – show how badly the managements of these companies need shaking up. But instead of supporting Yogev’s move, including because it would have relieved them of the heavy responsibility to do something about the companies under their supervision, the ministers opposed him.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is leading the drive to fire Yogev. But in the absence of the ability to fire only him, the initiative was bundled into an innocent-looking but destructive package. The proposal raised in cabinet was to change the way senior government officials with set terms of office may be fired. This applies to the topmost 100 officials in government, including all the regulators, all the senior Finance Ministry staff, all the senior staff at the Justice Ministry and at the governmental authorities. All can now be fired more easily. Instead of requiring approval by an appointments vetting committee headed by a judge, the Turkel Committee, dismissal will require only the approval of the Civil Service Commission. This is beyond question a hard blow to the independence of the top government officials.
Comeback of the party hacks
Netanyahu did not settle for that. At the cabinet meeting Sunday, he declared intentions not only to affect the way top officials are ousted, but how they are appointed. “I will cancel the search committees,” he declared. “We were elected to govern and part of governing is choosing people. 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.”
With that, Netanyahu has brought the damage wreaked to the independence and professionalism of the government officials to record dimensions. No more choice based on professional criteria, as are reflected by the choices of search committees; only based on the political whims of the ministers. The Likud central committee is back, big time.
There’s only one problem with Netanyahu’s statement – it’s arrant nonsense. His governance problems have nothing to do with the professionalism and independence of the government officials. On the contrary. Just last week, when the secretary general of the OECD, Angel Gurría, visited Israel, Netanyahu again repeated his oft-repeated statement that one of the worst structural problems Israel faces is too much bureaucracy and over-regulation.
“We shall fight over-regulation with axes,” Netanyahu said with his trademark colorfulness some months ago. “We are frightening away businesses, we are frightening away entrepreneurs, we are creating an atmosphere and reality of over-regulation, of over-legalization, of regulators inside regulators.”
Netanyahu’s war on over-regulation does not fit with the insane proposals he has been making lately. The proposal that from now on, ministers be the ones to appoint regulators – based on their whims, not qualifications – will only make the regulatory chaos worse. Not only will we get bad regulators who don’t know how to make informed decisions – the status of the regulators will be weakened because they will be identified with the ministers who appointed them, not with any professional, independent status.
The inevitable upshot will be a rapid churn rate among regulators, together with the ministers on top, and the end of any ability to sustain consistent regulatory policy over time. Instead of simplifying regulation, the proposal to weaken the status of regulators by turning them into political appointments makes it much, much more complicated.
Anyone thinking it’s legitimate for ministers to name their top officials because that’s how the Americans do it needs a fact-check. First of all, the U.S. changes government every four or eight years, not once every two years (the average duration of a ministerial post in Israel), which enables governance that does not exist in Israel. Secondly, the Americans are also discovering the wreckage caused by this form of government. Studies done in the U.S. proved that political appointments are much less successful at advancing projects compared with professional appointments.
Thirdly, world experience has led to a categorical conclusion: There is a clear correlation between the proliferation of political appointments and a government’s ability to function. A study by Prof. Momi Dahan of the Israel Democracy Institute showed that exactly: The more political appointments a country has, the less effective its government becomes.
Israel today is still in the middle of the scale of the developed nations, since we managed to block political appointments through clear rules for appointment and dismissal. If we adopt Netanyahu’s proposal, the dam will be broken and the day will come soon that the performance of our government deteriorates to the levels of Mexico, Italy, Greece or Turkey.
The better way
“It’s lawlessness,” says Knesset member Roy Folkman (Kulanu), head of the Knesset committee engaged in reform of the civil service, who raised proposals this week before the Knesset on making government appointments more efficient. “These are the topmost 120 people in government. They are chosen by search committees, and instead of being professional appointments, they’ll become political appointments. Everywhere there are political appointments, the professional level of the government declines,” he said.
Netanyahu’s attack on the system of search committees driven by qualifications is especially absurd. There can be no dispute over the superiority of choice by search committee over choice by a passing minister’s discretion, even numerically. Even if a minister means well and wants desperately to choose a worthy candidate, the minister will only be exposed to a small number of candidates and will usually tend to choose the one he feels closest to, even if s/he’s less fit for the job. A search committee opens its gates to the general public and will always be exposed to a much larger pool of candidates, including talented ones without sweetheart ties in government, which significantly improves the chances of choosing a better candidate.
The search committees were formed as a substitute for tenders, which had been the norm for especially sensitive government posts. The tenders mechanism utterly neutralized any ministerial influence and led to the choice of candidates based on net professional criteria. After the ministers wailed, the search committees were formed as a compromise. Their criteria are less rigid than the tenders had, and mainly, they can recommend more than one candidate. Thus the successful choice of antitrust commissioner was handled; the search committee suggested two people enabling the prime minister, acting as economy minister, to choose between them.
Actually, Netanyahu himself should know that his attack on the search committee mechanism is hollow. His office has fielded a team to engage in the question of political appointments in government. The team was formed at the demand of the ministers that the directors general of their ministries would become political appointments. It is headed by the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Eli Groner. Its recommendations have yet to be announced but they obviously won’t include the proposal to eliminate search committees. On the contrary.
The most prominent proposal is to expand the search committees to all appointments but to require freedom of choice by the politician. In other words, the search committees would always have to suggest more than one candidate. That would ensure that government officialdom remains professional and that the ministers get their freedom of choice – even if it’s the freedom to choose between three fit candidates.
Netanyahu’s professional team believes the opposite of its boss, exactly for the right reasons: because it’s doing a professional job and did not whip out some ridiculous, baseless statement.
Yet again it turns out that Netanyahu’s governance problem is not the officials around him, but his own weakness and his tendency to be dragged after strident, biased proposals instead of following the right professional recommendations. If Netanyahu goes on this way, he definitely will make his place in the annals of Israeli history, as the prime minister who lasted the longest and did the worst.