Editorial

A Watchdog Ready-made for Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, May 21, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

The statements by the governing coalition’s nominee for state comptroller, Matanyahu Englman, in an interview with the daily Israel Hayom provide an excellent example of why he delights the fifth Netanyahu coalition, which wants security guards rather than gatekeepers. “The comptroller is someone who deals with audits, not a law enforcement agency,” he said, adding that he believes the main job of the comptroller’s office is to supervise the use of public funds by state agencies.

“I want to provide my own approach, which stresses the managerial aspect, making agencies more economically efficient,” he said. In his view, “The comptroller’s office should focus on auditing, while management should be left to the state. The comptroller’s job is to audit. A regulator shouldn’t intervene in everything and substitute itself for the manager or the state.”

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The coalition’s choice of Englman, the director general of the Council for Higher Education, is another step in a deliberate process of undermining the comptroller’s standing as part of the broader assault on Israel’s system of checks and balances that the right, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is spearheading. MK Bezalel Smotrich of the Union of Right-Wing Parties — one of the two leading candidates for justice minister and with whom Netanyahu coordinated Englman’s nomination — promoted a bill in the last Knesset that sought to quash the comptroller’s power.

In the past, the comptroller’s job was filled by people of public stature like former Supreme Court justices Miriam Ben-Porat and Eliezer Goldberg. But this time the coalition’s candidate isn’t a judge, or even a lawyer. Granted, the comptroller doesn’t have to be a judge to do the job well, but Englman also lacks the public stature needed to fill a vital and sensitive post. At a time when the candidates for justice minister are vying over who will do more to weaken the judiciary and emasculate the gatekeepers, an anemic state comptroller should worry the public.

All the signs show that the assault on the gatekeepers will ratchet up once the new government is formed, because the government will abuse its legislative powers to create a loophole to let the prime minister avoid standing trial. Netanyahu, who stands accused (pending a hearing) of the serious crime of bribery, is using ministerial portfolios as currency for recruiting partners in his plot to evade justice.

A strong, independent state comptroller is one of the civil service’s key gatekeepers. The Basic Law on the State Comptroller states that the comptroller is chosen by the Knesset in a secret ballot. We must hope this secret ballot will enable coalition members aware of the dubious moves the prime minister is spearheading to consider carefully whether the coalition’s nominee was indeed proposed to audit the state properly or do the exact opposite.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.