The Bottom Line / If the Government Beats Zelekha, We Lose

A few years ago, then accountant general Nir Gilad, went to war against the Defense Ministry. He stubbornly insisted on appointing an accountant who would be subject to the Finance Ministry rather than to Defense. What he really wanted to achieve was penetration of the wall behind which the Defense Ministry behaved like an independent country - meaning, without any supervision, over its gigantic budget.

The Defense Ministry was horrified and fought back. Gilad, undeterred, recruited the cabinet, which ruled that Defense had to allow the treasury to appoint the accountant. But even then, almost two years passed before an external auditor finally broke through Defense's defenses.

Thus we see that even then, the government understood the importance of having independent auditors in its own ministries. Yet the present government is considering a motion, which originated in the Prime Minister's Office, to usurp the accountant general's power to appoint auditors to other ministries and government agencies. The proposal calls for making the auditors subject to the ministries at which they work, instead of to the Finance Ministry. In short, the government is thinking of ending their independence.

The Prime Minister's Office is promoting the idea despite some flabby resistance by the finance minister - who supports taking the power to appoint auditors away from the accountant general, but wants to give it to some other treasury official.

What changed in these few years to make the government change its mind?

Nothing - only the personalities involved.

Back then, the accountant general was Nir Gilad. Everybody liked him. Today, the accountant general is Yaron Zelekha. Nobody can stand him. That is reason enough, evidently, for the government to change its policy spots.

To his discredit, it must be said that Zelekha has created so many enemies for himself, who hate him so profoundly, that they are prepared to undermine the very foundations of government just to hurt him personally. It is unfortunate that Zelekha has drawn so much fire that even his predecessors' achievements are in danger. But to his enemies' discredit, they are prepared in their blind hatred to do just about anything to hurt him, and never mind the price the nation will pay.

Our government's behavior is reminiscent of that story of the Jew who is willing to pluck out his eye, as long as his neighbor loses both of his. The Prime Minister's Office, with some degree of assistance from the finance minister, is so busy stabbing Zelekha's eyes that it has not bothered to wonder whether it is plucking out our eyes, too.

It is sobering to learn what the real interests moving our leaders are. It certainly is not edifying. And it is especially hard to be cheerful after considering the inherent conflict of interest in the accountant general's job.

The accountant general is responsible for managing government spending. He is therefore key to the treasury's top team managing the national budget. However, the accountant general is also the auditor of the state books. As such, he must be independent, not part of the team that manages the national budget.

How do these conflicting jobs go together? They do not, which explains a lot of the friction between Zelekha and his colleagues at the Finance Ministry. They would like him to be a team player like his predecessors were; he sees himself as an independent auditor who must not be part of the treasury team. The result is constant collision.

It is bizarre that the inherent conflict in the accountant general's job is only coming to light now, because of Yaron Zelekha's unique (and awkward) personality. And it is worrying to see how the government is contending with the discovery. Instead of reaching the obvious conclusion that the two jobs conflict, and that what it needs is two different people to do them, the state is busy jousting with Zelekha the national auditor. As we said, it is a sobering conclusion, and not an edifying one.