Taking Stock / A Kan of Worms

A poor harvest.

That was how one of the members of the committee choosing Israel's next antitrust commissioner defined the shortlist of candidates.

The poor harvest, or scanty choice, is a disgrace - for the public sector and the process by which antitrust commissioners are chosen. There should have been dozens of eager candidates for a post of such power and influence.

But it's all academic now. Ehud Olmert, the outgoing minister of industry and trade, managed to deflect candidates who were worth their salt. Using his usual methods, he brought about the appointment of Ronit Kan, a top Industry and Trade Ministry official who has zero experience in antitrust matters. Nor is it clear whether she has the special qualities needed to handle the job.

Her cronies and supporters claim she's an ambitious professional who has stood out in all her jobs. For the sake of the Israeli economy, we can only hope she'll be a happy surprise, because in a cartel-ridden, monopolistic and brutal marketplace like ours, we need a commissioner who is strong, honest, clever, resourceful and efficient.

The status, clout and deterrent power of the Antitrust Authority have eroded. So has its effectiveness. The authority is having trouble moving from startup to establishment: It still fixates on whipping up a fuss in the press rather than achieving results in the field.

Even if the Antitrust Authority was far more active in 2005 than say a decade before, that is not saying much. It was only established 12 years ago, and its accrued experience should have significantly expanded its scope of activity, influence and success. That did not happen.

Kan, whose last job at the ministry was to run the foreign trade administration, an agreeable diplomatic position, is taking a materially different kind of job now. She will have a lot to learn, mainly how to say no.

l Kan has to learn to say no to all the giant corporations asking for permission to merge, marry and create cartels; she will have to stand strong against their battalions of lawyers and economists, who will painstakingly explain just why the merger is so wonderful for competition.

l Kan has to learn to say no to all the people inside and beyond the Antitrust Authority who want to close all the investigative cases, scale down the opening of new ones, and adopt a system of "civilian enforcement." That means eschewing the use of criminal proceedings. Without instituting criminal proceedings, the Antitrust Authority will quickly become toothless and irrelevant, something like the Consumer Council, to the glee of the monopolies.

l Kan has to learn to say no to the lobbyists crowding her office to promote the interests of the companies she is investigating. Some of the lobbyists will be affiliated with the very people who appointed her. She has to make clear from Day One that she is not a back-scratcher.

l Kan has to say: No, the job of antitrust commissioner is not just a jumping board to a choice job in the business sector afterward. She has to say: No, it is not a disgrace to be an idealist and consider the commissioner to be a champion of competition and fairness.

l Kan has to say: No, I will not touch anything related to the business of my husband Eyal Kan, who manages Zeev Mozes' media business. I shall fully disclose his business and declare in advance which areas I may not touch.

Kan can also say: No, on second thought, I don't want the enormous responsibility that goes with this job, I don't want the constant wear and tear, the media exposure and the day after day battles with the most powerful people in the business scene.

But from the moment she says yes, Ronit Kan must also learn to say no. No to the pressures, no to the manipulations, no to the strange and convoluted compromises people suggest, no to the delays and no to the mediocrity that rules so many high posts in the public sector, the mediocrity that deterred the brightest stars, reducing the shortlist of candidates to a "poor harvest."