Fischer: Clean Up Your House

Now it's official. Governor Stanley Fischer meant to appear before the people on television last night, at 20:00, exactly as the news shows begin, and announce that unless the parties involved in the labor dispute at the Bank of Israel climbed down from their trees and started negotiating immediately, he'd quit.

The spin worked. Even without any official notice - the central bank never said exactly why it had called the press conference - the rumor spread like wildfire. The finance minister took fright and ordered his wages director, Eli Cohen, to halt steps against Bank of Israel workers. Fischer called off his press conference, at least for 48 hours: he doesn't need to threaten to resign any more.

He, his spokesmen, and his media consultant Zamir Dahbash should be happy with the results of their little media ploy. 1:0 to the Bank of Israel in its battle against the Finance Ministry.

But we are not happy. We should not let the Bank of Israel and Fischer get away with it. Why? Because this isn't just another labor dispute. This story has good guys and bad buys, and the baddies won.

The bad guys win

The bad guys are the Bank of Israel workers. For years these people robbed the public. By virtue of their special status, they were exempt from budgetary supervision, and they set themselves up very, very prettily.

They wrote themselves paychecks that were higher than anywhere else in the public sector, and higher than at most private companies, too. They gave themselves extraordinary perks and benefits, set themselves a conveniently short working day, and naturally, arranged for absolutely extraordinary pension terms, at the taxpayer's expense.

Some of the benefits they racked up are especially maddening. Bank of Israel workers without cars, including ones who don't even know how to drive, automatically get "reimbursement of car expenses". The workers get promotions in rank, pay-wise, irrespective of their skills. Reimbursement of vacation time is wonderfully generous and there are many weird and unwonderful other items, little and big

For years Bank of Israel officials starred at the top positions of the civil service pay roster. Everybody knows about the central bank librarian who gets tens of thousands of shekels a month, far more than the prime minister makes.

Everybody, but everybody at the central bank is party to the scandal, but none more so than its executives and management, who get to retire with pension schemes worth many millions, and even though it has been proved time and again that they were over-paid, they refuse to return one agora of the money.

Even the Bank of Israel workers admit they went too far. But yesterday they closed down the bank. Why? Because they are angry at the Finance Ministry, which insisted on negotiating a new employment agreement for the Bank of Israel, and which has adopted some pretty belligerent methods. The result: meltdown. The Bank of Israel closed down, the capital market was crippled, and thanks to Fischer's little show, share prices tumbled too.

Know this: every man, woman and child in Israel lost money yesterday because of the Bank of Israel's tactics.

Fischer's fault

The man to blame for all this is Stanley Fischer. As governor of the Bank of Israel, and supported by his unique status and reputation, he should have stood tall and put the workers in their place.

He should have spelled it out: the looting is over. He should have cleaned house at his bank. He should have amended past sins, and reached a new employment agreement with the treasury.

But Fischer, an American, preferred to spend his time hobnobbing with other central bankers abroad. He preferred to leave the grubby Middle-Eastern scut work to his deputies in Israel. But either they didn't want to, or they couldn't, and the labor dispute at the Bank of Israel has now lasted four years, including Fischer's entire term as governor.

Yesterday the dispute boiled over, and again, Fischer took the side of the workers.

Maybe now, after Olmert's intervention, a new agreement will be reached. But justice was not done. The robbers of the public kitty were not detained. More oil was poured onto the exploding conflagration of corruption in Israel, by the governor of the Bank of Israel, of all people, the man who is supposed to advise the government how to build a healthier economy.