Sir Yossi

Did you know that Ramat Hasharon is an immigrant town?

No, I am not joking. Under Israeli law, Ramat Hasharon is defined an immigrant town and has a unique municipal tax (arnona) structure. All the government institutions operating in Ramat Hasharon have to pay it 100% of the municipal tax, while in other cities, the government institutions pay anywhere from 30% to 55% of the total bill, no more.

How did one of the richest cities in Israel become an immigrant town, entitled to tax breaks from the state? By virtue of a law enacted decades ago, back when Ramat Hasharon evidently really was a town populated mainly by immigrants, and its status was never revisited.

The Finance Ministry, which now wants to reform city tax collection criteria, is finally proposing to recheck the status of various cities. It may yet revoke Ramat Hasharon's special tax status.

It sounds like an important reform, but certainly it requires some investigation and forethought. So does the proposal to let qualified nurses write certain prescriptions, in order to relieve the pressure on doctors. That proposal appears in the finance minister's economic plan for the year 2007.

But the rub is, that hordes of journalists and lobbyists and politicians read the minister's economic plan, and none noticed that intriguing proposal about the nurses. That was probably because it appeared on Page 79, under the alluring headline, "Opening Professional units and Efficiency in the Health System".

If legions of journalists never noticed the proposal, or had a chance to judge whether it was a serious one or a stupid one, then we may rest assured that none of the ministers of government read the proposal or digested its import before the cabinet debate. Which is scheduled for today, five days after the proposed economic plan was made public.

The same plan proposes on Page 57 to reform the structure of the Israel Electric Corporation. On Page 91 it suggests privatizing daycare institutions for retarded children. Moving onto Page 40 we find a structural reform in the way university faculty are paid.

Then on Page 67 is the proposal for mergers among 120 local authorities, to create entities with critical mass.

Page 83 brings a plan to incorporate government hospitals as companies, Page 89 would dismantle the Religious Councils, and we've only reached the middle of the brochure.

And the government of Israel is supposed to hold a weighty, serious debate before the Knesset votes on the various bills inside three months.

The ludicrousness of continuing to declare the city of Ramat Hasharon to be an immigrant town 50 years after it ceased to be such, doesn't even count compared with the ludicrousness of government debates. At least regarding Ramat Hasharon, the government has woken up. But what about the status of the government itself?

In "Yes, Minister", the British mocked the power of the civil servants, exemplified by Sir Humphrey who led his minister by the nose, and effectively ruled the ministerial roost, though the minister thought he was the one in charge.

Here the ministers know full well that they don't control their ministries; they aren't supposed to, anyway. But the thing is, the civil servants don't control them either. They don't control anything at all. The uppermost civil servant, the director-general, changes with the minister every year and a half, which is more or less the average term that a minister gets to serve in Israel. Having a civil servant like Sir Humphrey is a distant dream.

The political instability in Israel, which leads to endless shuffles at the ministries, engenders extreme instability at the level of the professional bureaucrats, and leaves that echelon crippled. Since the pay offered to ministerial directors-general is not especially attractive, and since the directors-general have no real power (because after years of neglect, the Finance Ministry learned its lesson and usurped their powers), and since the job probably won't last beyond a year and a half, clearly no manager of repute would take the job. We do not have Sir Humphreys, and not even Sir Yossis.

That is the face of our government, and the level of the debate in it.

There is no doubt that of all the reforms that Israel sorely needs, the sorest need of all is for reform of government itself. Dare we hope that a minister will arise, who will declare a reform of himself?