“The government is doing maintenance work. I feel like we’re just passing time. It’s like a sabbatical year. We’re not starting new initiatives, and the sense of frustration is enormous,” says one senior official.
“We’re working a lot less than usual. People come to work in the morning, but they don’t plan anything new, a lot of programs are stuck and nothing seems urgent. There’s a lot of empty spaces in the parking lot than usual, and offices empty out earlier,” says another.
This is life for civil servants in Israel these days, as Israel heads toward its third general election in less than a year, having been under the rule of a caretaker government since December 2019.
Since the start of the year, the government has been operating strictly within the spending limits of the 2019 budget. Ministers have been preoccupied with election politics for more than a year and directors general are angling for a new job in the expectation that the minister who hired them will be replaced soon. The Knesset has almost stopped legislating. The plenum and the committees rarely meet and when they do it is often to put out fires by extending measures that were due to expire or to give lawmakers a photo opportunity.
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The paralysis is coming at a cost to the economy, sometimes under the radar but often within full view. For instance, when the Israel Tax Authority sought an order that would enable it to crack down on the phenomenon on gasoline dilution – a practice that costs the state some 450 million shekels ($313 million) annually, the Knesset Finance Committee said it would deal with it only after the election.
More critical legislation, such as raising the pension age for women and modernization of the payment system, is lying in abeyance.
“Everything has grown more cumbersome – budgets, programs, appointments and contracts. We have no money for new programs. We have to request approvals from a special committee for every shekel,” said a Transportation Ministry official, who asked not to be named. “I’m not paid a salary to preserve the existing situation but to initiate new things. There’s a constant feeling of no budget and no money.”
A message posted a week ago by Irit Bar, the head of the development administration at the Interior Ministry, captured the prevailing atmosphere: “It’s not that we’re working less now – we’re working harder. But the balance between actual work and the bureaucracy that goes with it has gotten much worse. If we were a private business, I think it would have declared bankruptcy or laid off half of us, but in the government, work just goes on as usual.”
However, she said the prolonged paralysis had undermined confidence between the central government and the local authorities, nonprofits, people applying for jobs and the public. “It will take years to restore it,” she said.
The increased red tape comes at a cost. “The long chain of approvals creates a situation in which it can take a year from the time you plan a project until it gets approved, by which time it’s often not relevant because things have changed,” said a Transportation Ministry official on condition of anonymity. “You get a salary but can’t really do anything.”
The process of hiring has also been slowed down by the need to have a special committee clear each and every job that is being filled. “I’m not complaining about the officials in the treasury that demand it, but I find myself investing a lot of time in preparing special requests, completing documents and explaining to all kinds of officials why I need a particular budget – above and beyond my real work,” said another.
Even programs that had been approved before the Knesset was dispersed or even years earlier are slowed by the constant need for approvals to keep them operating.
Officials in various local authorities said the situation had not led to a systemic breakdown of government operations, but the red tape will soon make itself felt ordinary citizens.
One source cited as an example the start of the coming school year. It’s been known for some time that there will be a shortage of preschools and classrooms come September.
“The local authorities asked to begin construction from their own budgets on condition that the government would eventually pay them back. But the treasury accountant general wouldn’t agree to a retroactive repayment. They told us that if we start construction before we’ve gotten approval, we won’t get any money,” said one local official.
On the other hand, Health Ministry officials said they regarded the interregnum as an opportunity.
“It’s true that the balance between work and bureaucracy that surrounds it has been upset. I spend a lot of time writing and rewriting documents for the committee granting special exemptions, but I’m not involved with this the entire day,” said one official, who asked not to be named, but she said he looked it as an opportunity to spend money more effectively.
“I belong to a group that believes that for every shekel that goes into the public sector, half of it goes to waste. In the health system, the situation is better, but even in our area 20-30 agorot goes to waste. So this year has been dedicated by me not on finding new budgets but to using the exiting ones better – and that’s also important,” she said.
She also said the paralysis was giving her and other senior officials to think more carefully and in depth about the work they are doing.
“In an ordinary year, you have Knesset hearings every week, requests from the minister and end of the year tasks. It doesn’t let you deal with things in depth,” the official explained. “No one can say we’re shooting from the hip. We undertook scores of consultations on different matters and we sharpened out positions – and that’s thanks to the respite that was forced on us.”
Treasury gains power
The current situation has strengthened the powers of two Finance Ministry officials. In lieu of the Knesset’s never passing a 2020 budget, Accountant General Rony Hizkiyahu is responsible for enforcing the law that keeps the 2019 budget in force on a month-to-month basis this year. The exemptions committees that can approve any exceptions are answerable to him. Civil servants’ salaries are still being paid, but the treasury wants to broadcast the message that it is being frugal and exacting by examining every request for a business trip and holiday gift under a magnifying glass.
Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry’s legal adviser, Asi Messing, is responsible for ensuring that budgets being approved aren’t in violation of rules on spending during an election period. For instance, before the September election, Messing blocked an attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to direct money from a fund managed by the tax authority to pay compensation to restaurants and wedding halls near Gaza whose business had been disturbed by Hamas rocket attacks. The money was only approved after the September vote.
Meanwhile, even the cabinet has not been meeting weekly during the past year as it ordinarily does. When it does approve a concrete proposal, it has to include a lengthy legal opinion justifying why the measure is being taken by a transitional government.
More recently, the government has ignored it, legal advisers, in some case. For instance, a week ago, under pressure from Netanyahu, the cabinet unanimously approved bringing some 400 Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, as well as the establishment of a committee to probe the Justice Ministry’s unit for the investigation of police officers.
Both moves came over the objections of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who raised the suspicion that the initiatives aimed at rallying Ethiopian Israelis to vote Likud in the March 2 election.