The Bottom Line / A Public Sector Boss Not Seen Since the Mandate

With one slash of his sword, Stanley Fischer cut down the careers of the three most senior people in the Supervisor of Banks department at the Bank of Israel this week. The supervisor himself, Yoav Lehman, was ordered to start his retirement leave early. On the spot, in fact. Two of his deputies were temporarily suspended, but we can assume they won't be returning to the ranks at the Bank of Israel.

With that lightning move, Fischer reminded Israel of the norms with which he was brought up, American norms, in which the governor is the one who rules, and anybody who betrays his trust gets repaid instantly, and harshly. Israel probably hasn't seen a demonstration of leadership like this in its public sector since the days of the British mandate.

To recap, the breach of trust involved suspicions that one or more of the three was responsible for leaking the information that the Supervisor of Banks had collated on Rony Hizkiyahu, who has been tapped to replace Yoav Lehman as supervisor of banks. It is not known whether or not Fischer has proof that one or more of the three is the source of the leak, but yea or nay, Fischer did not hesitate. Delivering a message that the supervisory department may not leak justified the decisive ouster.

We may assume there were elements beyond the leak driving Fischer's decisiveness. The leak made the process by which Hizkiyahu was chosen look ridiculous: It turned out that Fischer and his team never bothered to check what the upervisor of anks thought of his putative replacement. From that perspective, the leak hurt Fischer as much as it hurt Hizkiyahu, and that may well be the real reason for the swiftness and ferocity of Fischer's reaction.

American norms

Anyway, Fischer gave us a demonstration of American norms. It is a pity he only whips out these norms for the case of a leak that embarrasses him, but ignores them when it comes time to fight over the image and fairness of Israeli society.

Fischer fired three Bank of Israel workers with the wave of a hand just because they leaked information against him. But he hasn't fired workers who falsified vacation reports for years on end. He hasn't punished anybody over pension payments that are double the legal level, or over vehicle maintenance pay awarded to workers who don't have a car. He has done nothing about central bank workers who gross NIS 50,000 a month, though the director-general of a ministry has to settle for NIS 31,000.

American norms regarding pay for civil servants are clear. There are rules and directives. Nobody does whatever the devil he feels like just because he holds an important public job and has access to the taxpayers' money. By the way, American norms also suggest that sunlight is the best sterilizer: Squandering taxpayer money in secret just isn't done.

But somewhere on the way from America to Jerusalem, Fischer shed some of these norms. He is not responsible for the pay excesses at the Bank of Israel, which predate him by decades. But neither has he gone out of his way to combat them as governor of the Bank of Israel.

Which is why the Bank of Israel is on a collision course with the wages director at the Finance Ministry. The wages director demands that Bank of Israel workers who were overpaid should return the money. At present the parties are arguing over retirement bonus caps: NIS 2 million (Bank of Israel) or NIS 1 million (treasury), and by how much Bank of Israel workers may be promoted just before they retire (to jack up their pension payments).

Only Bank of Israel workers could have the gall to portray a million-shekel retirement bonus as a painful concession on their part. It may hurt them, but it hurts the taxpayer a lot more. It also hurts that the treasury is on the verge of signing a new collective employment agreement for the civil service, an agreement for which the Bank of Israel has nothing but contempt.

This wouldn't have happened in America. Anybody overpaid has to return the money and that's that. Or go home.

Fischer has demonstrated that he knows how to show errant workers the door, when they dare to besmirch his dignity. But he evidently feels no compulsion to do the same when all they're hurting - no, trampling - is the dignity of the State of Israel, and its budget.