Questions for Mr. Fischer

The governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, was asked during an interview he gave to Channel 2 television whether he meant to stay in Israel when his term ends. Fischer, offering his modest smile, answered with that tired chestnut economists say: It's dangerous to make forecasts, especially about the future.

His elegant answer was yet another example of how he dodges inconvenient questions. He had good reason to leave this one up in the air. The question of how committed Fischer is to Israel has come back to the fore lately, as the treasury and the Bank of Israel Union wrestled over a wage agreement for the bank workers.

The question arose again this week, in a last-ditch effort to wrap up negotiations. Sources involved in the negotiations claim the threat that Fischer would quit and leave Israel if the talks didn't end the way he wanted them to also came up again. Feeling that it was bad enough to have the Tax Authority collapse, and that they didn't need a breakdown at the Bank of Israel, the officials thought compromise was the wiser choice.

Based on Fischer's lofty standing in the international community and the tremendous contribution he no doubt lends to Israel's economic standing, the prime minister and the finance minister would be all the more willing to compromise.

That is probably the main reason why their bureaus elected to wrap up the talks with Fischer behind the back of Eli Cohen, who is the Finance Ministry's wages director, and to accept what Cohen considers to be illegal terms. Yet if anybody is empowered to conduct the negotiations and sign the agreement, it's Cohen.

Fischer firmly denies having issued any threats to pack up and go, but there's no doubt that the question of his commitment to Israel hangs over every negotiation with the central bank over wage practices. From that perspective, Fischer, so clever and Anglo-Saxon, has proved his mettle as a doughty union leader even more daring and militant than Ofer Eini, chairman of the Histadrut Labor Federation. At most Eini can threaten to shut down the country. Fischer can threaten to harm Israel's international standing.

With the backing of such clout, no wonder the Bank of Israel can boast a triumph in its labor negotiations. Existing workers did take a 25 percent pay cut, and some illegal extras to their pay were canceled. But most of the pay perks the central bank tailored for its people over the years remain, and have been laundered into the new agreement, too.

For instance, they are entitled to a high level of car maintenance reimbursement, and pay of NIS 42,000 a month at high echelons, which is more than almost any other government body pays.

Eli Cohen insisted on abolishing the practice of paying car maintenance to people who have no driving licenses, let alone cars. He almost got away with it, but the talks broke down two weeks ago after it turned out that the central bank insisted on preserving that perk for new workers as well ("second generation").

Fischer demanded an extra NIS 500 a month for each and every central bank worker, irrespective of their actual travel expenses, and when Cohen said it was illegal, on the ground that it is a pay raise called by another name, he found himself with a wage agreement sewn up behind his back.

Cohen has already stated that he won't sign the agreement. But if the government's choice is between Cohen going home, or Fischer going home, wherever he calls home - well, Cohen must know who the government will choose.

Therefore, Fischer may shortly be posting an extraordinary Israeli achievement: There's a good chance he will soon be hanging Cohen's scalp from his belt.

But Fischer should also think about what he is supposed to achieve in his capacity as economic adviser to the government. For instance, what should he advise the government as it negotiates with teachers? Should he recommend that each teacher get NIS 500 more a month, for car costs, whether or not they drive? Perhaps all school principals should be paid NIS 42,000 a month, because a principal is surely no less important than a manager at the Bank of Israel?

Perhaps Fischer can talk about the economic ramifications of setting public-sector wages based on Bank of Israel norms? What would our budget deficit, costs to GDP, or economic growth look like if central bank norms become the yardstick?

One has to wonder whether Fischer, in his capacity as economic adviser to the government, thinks that laundering a pay hike into costs is good advice. If he doesn't think so, then why did he throw all his weight into assuring that very thing for his own workers?

Oh, and by the way - one wonders what Fischer thinks about the practice that has taken root in the bureaus of the prime minister and the finance minister, of usurping the legal powers of Finance Ministry staff. It began as a means to gag the accountant-general, Yaron Zelekha, and has turned into a system for running government in Israel, even if the law, proper administration, and appearances would dictate otherwise.