The Shekel Drops / What Kind of Minister Is Eli Yishai?

So what do you know about Interior Minister Eli Yishai? Here are some things you should know before forming your opinion.

On what basis do you form your opinion of a given minister? Maybe the deciding factor for you is his attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or toward the religious-secular struggle? Or perhaps it's how often he is mentioned in the press, or his articulateness? All well and good. But what about his actual deeds?

Take the interior minister, Eli Yishai. What exactly do you know about his deeds?

Eli Yishai - Emil Salman - 17012012
Emil Salman

Yishai has taken much flak over the fire services' poor showing in the 2010 Carmel fire, even aside from the arrows slung at him by the satirical television show "Eretz Nehederet" ("Wonderful Country" ). But to be honest, this is unfair to Yishai. The horrible state of Israel's firefighting forces is the bastard child of bad decisions by successive interior ministers over 25 years. Yishai is just the last of them, and it would be wrong to cast the entire blame on his shoulders after 25 years of mismanagement.

So what do you know about Interior Minister Eli Yishai? Here are some things you should know before forming your opinion:


1. The State Comptroller's Report published a month ago revealed that the Interior Ministry has been handing out grants to local authorities based on no criteria. None.

The comptroller looked at three years, 2007 to 2009, during which there were three interior ministers: Roni Bar-On, Meir Sheetrit and Yishai. All did the same thing, so it could be said that the shoes Yishai had to fill were rotten to begin with: He merely continued the practice of the minister handing out public money as he pleased. But Yishai brought the practice to new heights, handing out NIS 800 million in a single year.

What is there to say about a minister who hands out public money with no criteria? That he doesn't understand the responsibility his job involves, doesn't know how to manage large organizations and feels no compulsion to improve the organization he heads. As in the case of the firefighters, Yishai inherited a dysfunctional system but did nothing to improve it.


2. Local governments are the biggest service suppliers in Israel. Welfare, education, water, sewage treatment, municipal roads, culture, garbage collection and more are mostly provided by city hall, not the central government. Therefore, the functioning of the local governments is key to the quality of life.

But there is no sign of the critical importance of local government in the Interior Ministry's functioning. For decades, especially since the great economic crisis of 2003 (when the central government cut support for the local authorities ), local governments have existed in a perennial state of crisis. Out of 250 local authorities, 50 stand on their own two feet and 200 live off government supplements. Of the latter, about 60 constantly go in and out of financial rehab, while 20 are in a state of clinical death: Their local councils have been disbanded and they are being run by ministry officials.

A model that causes 80% of the nation's local authorities to be dysfunctional for a decade or more is a failure. So it is time to admit that this model is bankrupt. It needs rethinking.

The local authorities' perennial bankruptcy is the reason for their incessant strikes, including the current one. Putting out fires via narrow agreements about issues like water prices or profit-sharing with the national lottery just postpones the bitter end. The model is dead. It should be buried, and a new one should be created.

If anybody has heard Yishai say or do anything about this, please raise your hand.


3. One minister did notice that the model of local government administration wasn't working. That was Natan Sharansky, who was interior minister back in 2000. He noticed that the central government - i.e., his ministry - was managing the local authorities under a law dating from the British mandate. Yes, a law forged back when the British were controlling Jewish local government in Palestine and didn't want so much as a pin to be moved without their permission.

Since then, though, much water has trickled through the Jordan River. For one thing, a Jewish-Zionist-democratic state arose. Yet the ordinance dictating a relationship of occupier to occupied was never amended.

Sharansky therefore set about writing a new Municipalities Law, a monster with more than 1,000 articles that became one of the longest bills ever compiled in Israel. Interior ministers came and went and added to the bill here and there, yet it never did get through the Knesset, which bowed to the narrow interests of certain mayors. Every interior minister has tried to push the bill - except Yishai. He hasn't, proving his indifference to the state of local government.


4. But the final proof of his indifference to the state of local government was his populist decision of two weeks ago to increase discounts on city taxes (arnona ). Arnona discounts already cost the struggling cities NIS 2 billion a year in lost income. Yishai decided to increase that by 25%. That means the already shaky state of the municipalities will get even worse, since they are totally dependent on arnona income.

True, it's awfully nice to be a generous minister. But it's no great trick to be generous at the expense of others - namely, the local authorities. It's even less impressive for a minister to be generous at the cost of worsening the lot of those for whom he is responsible. The inescapable conclusion is that Yishai doesn't care about the local authorities.

We could go on, but the picture seems clear: Yishai is a bad interior minister. It seems the job simply doesn't interest him. Perhaps even worse, that hasn't hurt his political reputation, because the people of Israel don't realize it.

The relationship between the central government and the local authorities cries out for reform. The reform must include shaking up the Interior Ministry, which has utterly failed as supervisor of the local governments.

In fact, the entire Israeli government needs reforming: Goals should be clearly defined at all the ministries, so that people have more to judge their ministers by than their gleaming smiles in the media.