Taking Stock / Ofer Eini, Blighted Knight on a Staggering Steed

One snag on the way to reform: If you don't piss on the people and deliver a great belly laugh while about it, you aren't a man.

"They" - elected representatives in the Knesset and unelected officials in the government - "are simply thinking about their next jobs - in business," he said. He said it outright. "We're like a conduit to the business sector and other bodies. It pays for them to cooperate with us .... Often enough their resumes wind up with us, and sometimes they need help."

Thus did lobbyist Amit Avner of the firm Gilad - Government Relations & Lobbying describe why Knesset members roll over and wag their tails for lobbyists. He was speaking during a lecture to future lobbyists caught on camera by the investigative television program "Uvda" ("Fact" ).

Yuval Steinitz Ofer Eini - Emil Salman - 21022012
Emil Salman

But if you've been reading TheMarker for the last seven years or so, you knew that already.

Nor is there any surprise in the braggadocio caught on tape about how the lobbyists influence ministers, MKs and state officials. Israeli democracy has been hijacked by a small gang of powerful, belligerent economic forces. Elections may be held every four years and may hinge on any number of issues, but most of these issues are mere blips on the public's radar. Politicians come and go, but the people manipulating them and their interests stay on.

The "Uvda" inquiry and the subsequent reactions last week taught mainly that evincing brash, open and utter contempt for the public has become the norm, preferably with a great belly laugh while about it. Pissing on the people must be done ostentatiously so everybody sees who's doing it. Contempt for the public is key to one's reputation as a force to be reckoned with. If you don't pee on the people, you're a loser.

The good news is that the situation in the United States, which for some reason we Israelis keep comparing ourselves to, is worse. Institutionalized corruption in Congress has been ramping up. America's politicians have grown disproportionately rich during the last 10 years, and they're getting greedier by the day.

The bad news isn't what we saw on "Uvda." It's that the most powerful economic forces don't need lobbyists. They have far more effective means to exert pressure on MKs.

Lobbyists are excellent tools for companies or other bodies that don't have effective ways or direct channels to influence MKs. The lobbyists have been hanging around the Knesset corridors for years. They know it all - the MKs' interests, alliances, contacts, fears and dreams. The lobbyists zero in on the Knesset members' weak points, or strong ones for that matter, and use them.

The really big businessmen, the ones who own banks and insurance companies, who control the business pyramids and the press, have no need for lobbyists. They can deliver carrots and sticks to MKs and the watchdogs in person.

The public resentment of lobbyists is deserved, in part. Banishing them from the Knesset would strengthen the economy and Israeli society. But the truth is, the really effective lobbyists aren't prowling the Knesset's corridors. They're staying put in their Tel Aviv office towers, pulling the strings of their sprawling networks.

While handling the lobbyist problem matters, we must keep in mind that they're just the expression of how laws and regulations are bought for money. The root of the problem is bad values and culture in government and the public service.

The weakness of the MKs, the regulators and the people controlling the public kitty reflects not only twisted values, but also the public service's vulnerable structure. This is where people in key positions earn a pittance, where professionalism is eroded by the high churn rate, and where there are no conditions to cultivate a culture of excellence and mission that would attract good people and keep them on the job.

All these diseases appear in the general strike for the subcontracted workers that ended last week. One newspaper owned by a tycoon declared that "a historic agreement" had been achieved. The piece featured a huge picture of the man making history, none other than Eini, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation that closed down public services for four days.

The protests that erupted last summer over Israel's onerous cost of living caught Ofer Eini unprepared. Israel's other leaders in politics and business were equally astonished. One morning they woke up and found the people suddenly rejecting the twaddle they'd been pushing about who the good guys and bad guys were.

Scrabbling to remain relevant, Eini jumped on the bandwagon of the downtrodden contract workers, whose plight the Histadrut had always ignored. So after four days of garbage piling up on the streets and shuttered government offices, Eini signed an agreement with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, giving a tiny fraction of Israel's subcontracted workers a much better deal.

An interesting factoid

After reading the "historic agreement," we have to ask how many hundreds of thousands of contract workers will continue to work under the same exploitative conditions as before. The Finance Ministry and Histadrut don't want to divulge that factoid.

An even better question that nobody's asking is who's going to pay for the improved conditions of the lucky fraction.

The technical answer is you the taxpayer and the national budget. But that's a bad answer because experience teaches that when we have to cut the budget, the poor pay while the friends of lobbyists and Eini know how to take care of themselves.

Therefore, any agreement based on increasing government expenditure without citing specific sources for the extra spending isn't historic, it's doomed.

We can't expect Eini, who is controlled by the powerful unions and his friends the tycoons who arrange adulatory press coverage of him, to demand changes that would truly improve the lot of subcontracted workers. His masters want him to keep things the way they are.

But we can be disappointed by the prime minister, the finance minister and the treasury people. They seem to have completely given up on structural reforms. They don't even talk about reforms anymore. They react to every detail of the plague of the day inflicted on the economy or people by this or that powerful sector. Or they revel in "Israel's economic achievements" and leave it at that.

Last week the finance minister proudly issued a letter to Israel's economic reporters about the International Monetary Fund report, which mentioned Israel's economic strengths versus the rest of the world. But the report said Israel's poverty rates were among the highest in the West. That adds to a Bank of Israel report last month stating that Israel's cost of living is also monstrously high.

But instead of discussing competitiveness, flexibility, ways to reduce inequality or improve the public sector, the Finance Ministry is blithely settling for the achievement of fiscal discipline.

The social protests provided an excellent opportunity to change the discourse and create new coalitions for structural change. It's a shame the Finance Ministry never had the good sense to find common ground with the protesters or to leverage the protest. Maybe that mission will have to wait for the next finance minister and the next chairman of the Histadrut.