Placing Society Ahead of Secrets

Meretz MK Haim Oron, on the frontline of Israel's struggle against the concentration of economic power, is still going strong at 70

A few months ago, the Knesset Finance Committee found itself in an uproar over the Bank of Israel Law. The issue at hand was an article involving the approval of the bank's budget by the Finance Committee.

Bank Governor Stanley Fischer rejected committee chairman Moshe Gafni's suggested phrasing, which stated that the central bank's annual budget be subject to the committee's approval.

Haim Oron
Eiml Salman

Fischer got mad. Some in the Knesset believed he would resign if the article were accepted.

It was Meretz Chairman Haim Oron who found a compromise. He suggested that the governor be required to submit the budget to the Finance Committee, but that it not be contingent on the committee's approval. That way, the central bank's budget would be open to scrutiny by the public and the Finance Ministry, but the governor would not be held hostage by the Finance Committee.

Although in opposition, Oron 70. is one of the most influential MKs on the Finance Committee. He is its longest-serving member, having served intermittently since 1988. Oron, a kibbutznik, earned his reputation as the committee's "responsible adult" not only thanks to his age, but due to his experience and professionalism as a parliamentarian.

As a legislator, in his most recent term Oron achieved a law restricting employers from firing employees undergoing IVF treatments, and another that prohibits discrimination against patients on grounds of their religion, nationality, gender or race. Another of his bills, stating that pension rights of couples be considered a joint asset (mainly for the purpose of divorce ) has won preliminary approval in the Knesset.

Most prefer intelligence

He has had great impact on government through the Finance Committee. Two years ago, for example, he managed to increase the budget for the state-funded drug basket. His influence is marked in the committee's decisions on the budget, privatization, limiting the concentration of economic power, capping wages in the civil service, and narrowing socioeconomic gaps.

Devoting himself to the Finance Committee is not an obvious choice. Other party leaders would rather sit on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, where they are privy to secret intelligence briefings, than, for example, involve themselves in serial crises at the religious councils.

Oron's preference for society over defense derives from his social-democratic philosophy, which is evident in his choice of battles. On the committee, Oron leads the charge against the concentration of economic power. He doesn't think that a single broad law can address the entire problem; he proposes a series of laws attacking from different angles.

At his suggestion, in July the committee issued the government an ultimatum. If by October it did not launch a public inquiry into the concentration of economic power, the committee would promote a bill on the subject submitted by MK Einat Wilf (Labor ) and signed by 37 MKs.

Oron sees a link between concentration and the sale of financial and non-financial government assets, including banks, to private owners. In the past he objected to privatization as a matter of principle, because he was opposed to the sale of state holdings to the private sector. Today, he says, he has another reason: the impact that privatization has on the concentration of economic power.

For this reason he opposes the government's intention to sell off Bank Leumi in small bundles, explaining that he is afraid the buyer of these shares will ally with larger forces, and that together they will become an extremely influential factor in the market. He believes that it is better to have bureaucrats rule (that is, to have the government control Bank Leumi ) than to have interested parties and wealthy players in control.

Another matter Oron wishes to examine is wages in the civil service. In his three last Knesset terms he has suggested a series of bills capping pay iat the salary of the Supreme Court chief justice, around NIS 60,000 a month. (All these bills, incidentally, were rejected).

In recent years he has also demanded that something be done about salaries of top employees at publicly traded companies. "Wages have reached unreasonable and unexplained heights, and it's a scandal," he said. "CEOs and senior officers at publicly held companies are paid high salaries that are not made contingent on financial outcomes, the company's performance, or its size."

As a solution, Oron suggested that the Israeli tax authorities not consider wage expenditure above NIS 150,000 tax deductible, or that an especially high tax be imposed on salaries at this level. The government is opposed, but in the end, largely thanks to pressure by Oron and other MKs such as Shelly Yachimovich (Labor ) and Haim Katz (Likud ), it will need to propose measures for capping senior wages at publicly held companies.