Prof. Jacob Frenkel’s withdrawal of his nomination as governor of the Bank of Israel has revived the debate on the demand that candidates for senior government posts have “clean hands.” In a statement expressing regret for the withdrawal, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid lavished praise on Frenkel and blamed the “current atmosphere” which they said had caused Frenkel to bow out and would drive other people away from public life.
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Their position isn’t new. In the early years of the state, the common view was that personal flaws, or even criminal behavior, were tolerable if the individual was vital to the national revival or some important security task. “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn,” Levi Eskhol used to say, quoting from the Bible. Eshkol, then-treasurer of the Jewish Agency (and later prime minister), was responding to an audit that revealed serious corruption at the agency. Moshe Dayan, who served as chief of staff, defense minister and foreign minister, was forgiven for chasing women and stealing antiquities.
“A man can be pure and saintly all his days and not succeed in a public mission; indeed, the opposite may be true,” Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, wrote to an officer whose wife was having an affair with Dayan. In his letter, Ben-Gurion compared the one-eyed chief of staff to King David and Admiral Nelson.
Ben-Gurion insisted on a distinction between private and public life. But today the norm is different, and that’s all to the good. Candidates for senior posts must face questions about their private behavior. Frenkel wasn’t “put on the firing line,” as he claimed; rather, he was subjected to the proper practices of a democratic state, where power is wielded in public sight.
That’s why Yoav Galant, a candidate to become Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, lost out on this lofty position due to building violations, and why Frenkel withdrew his nomination as central bank governor because of an investigation in Hong Kong years ago in which he was suspected of shoplifting from an airport duty-free store.
The governor of the Bank of Israel isn’t just an expert economist who sets interest rates. He’s also responsible for ensuring ethical conduct in the banking system, so he has to set an example. Former governor Stanley Fischer, for instance, played a key role in ousting Dan Dankner as Bank Hapoalim chairman because of improper personal conduct. Consequently, the governor must be without blemish.
Frenkel had two opportunities to explain the Hong Kong incident to the Turkel Committee, which vets senior civil service appointments – the first one before Amir Oren disclosed the incident in Haaretz on July 12. But he chose to give up the appointment, regain his privacy and keep this “vexing and embarrassing” story, as he termed it, to himself.
Netanyahu and Lapid would like to return Israel to the 1950s, when appointments were settled through quiet deals, the media were obedient and the public was apathetic. It’s good that Frenkel, in his final effort to salvage his honor, reminded them that the norms in 2013 are otherwise.