Opinion

Nominate a State Comptroller Now

Israel's State Comptroller Joseph Shapira in a meeting in the Knesset, Jerusalem, December 31, 2018.
Emil Salman

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira has a bizarre custom: He imitates the voices of animals during discussions, especially foxes. He also not infrequently begins telephone conversations with such imitations. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz described one such phone call involving bizarre animal imitations followed by praise for the revolution he has fomented on the roads.

Shapira was not a strong comptroller, to say the least. He was graced with a lethal combination of lack of knowledge about the reports he signed, superficiality and a tendency to fold in the face of threats. The smartest decision he ever made was not to be interviewed, after having given one or two interviews early in his term that were catastrophes.

But the comptroller’s weakness has actually highlighted the strength of the State Comptroller’s Office, which has produced significant reports throughout his tenure. There was the report on the factors responsible for the insane rise in apartment prices; the report on expenditures at the prime minister’s residences, which led to a police investigation; and the report on the Communications Ministry, particularly its oversight of Bezeq, which led to the so-called Bezeq-Walla case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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For much less than this, former State Comptroller Miriam Ben-Porat won praise from here to Denmark. Yet to some degree, the gap between the office’s serious criticism of the failures of public transportation and the praise Shapira gave Katz in that phone call are typical of his tenure.

There’s no guarantee that the impressive capabilities of the State Comptroller’s Office will survive the tenure of another weak comptroller. Moreover, Netanyahu’s governing coalition is dreaming of someone who will make us long for the last one.

The fact that Netanyahu is trying to reach a consensus on who the next comptroller will be with MK Bezalel Smotrich (Union of Right-Wing Parties) shows what kind of comptroller he wants. After all, during the last Knesset, Smotrich aggressively pushed a bill that sought to undermine the comptroller’s power insofar as possible.

I don’t know Prof. Abraham Diskin, the Netanyahu coalition’s candidate for the job (attorney Michal Rosenbaum is also in the running). It’s hard to find anything in his resume that would qualify him for the position, aside perhaps from the fact that he has voiced conservative, right-wing opinions (but also opinions that would make it hard for the ultra-Orthodox to support him). Perhaps Netanyahu is also enticed by the fact that no professional search committee would evidently recommend him for the job.

The opposition has a wonderful opportunity to thwart the Netanyahu-Smotrich plan. The Knesset vote is secret, and Netanyahu’s new coalition doesn’t actually exist yet.

By law, Shapira’s term will end on July 3. A new comptroller must be chosen at least 30 days before then, and candidates must submit their candidacies 14 days before that, meaning by the middle of next week. In other words, the list of candidates will evidently be finalized before Netanyahu has managed to get all his coalition partners to commit to his nominee.

The opposition, which is relatively homogenous, must find a candidate who could defeat Netanyahu’s candidate in a secret ballot. MK Yair Lapid is apparently interested in running Prof. Yifat Biton, who tried and failed to enter the Knesset as part of Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher party. That’s a mistake. Not because of her qualifications, but because it would play into Netanyahu’s hands.

For the first time in 30 years, a prime minister is trying to erode the dignity of the office by appointing someone who isn’t a retired judge. Granted, one doesn’t have to be a judge to fill the post successfully, but when Netanyahu’s intention on this issue coincides with an attempt to weaken the institution and the person who heads it, this fact has significance as well.

Nominating a candidate who isn’t a judge would negate the possibility of fighting over this issue. And the opposition seems to have excellent candidates who do have judicial experience: Elyakim Rubinstein, Eliezer Rivlin, Amnon Straschnov. Nominating one of them could force Netanyahu to nominate a candidate like former Judge Joseph Elon, who is advising him on the investigations against him.

The last time around, for the first time ever, Netanyahu needed three rounds of voting to get his candidate elected. And that was after what Knesset members considered the traumatic tenure of the late Micha Lindenstrauss. This time, there are MKs, even in Netanyahu’s Likud party, who want to put limits on his anti-democratic tendencies. All that’s necessary is to give them a candidate with whom they can feel secure.