The Bottom Line / Passing the Bucks

Supreme Court President Aharon Barak's decision to avoid ruling in the salary dispute between the Bank of Israel and the Finance Ministry was a big disappointment.

Supreme Court President Aharon Barak's decision to avoid ruling in the salary dispute between the Bank of Israel and the Finance Ministry was a big disappointment.

Barak proposed passing the decision in the matter to Attorney General Menahem Mazuz, in spite of both sides' refusal to commit themselves to accepting his decision. The High Court of Justice is supposed to act to support justice - and in this case the injustice is clear. The exorbitant salaries at the Bank of Israel are an outrageous affront to decency.

One day even David Klein, the central bank's governor, will be sorry he decided to fight such a blatant battle to protect the excessive salaries in the bank. When he speaks about macroeconomic policy or about the need to make cuts in the budget, many of which harm the needy and cause unemployment, people will remind him that there is only one budget and only one purse.

They will remind him that the moment salaries, fringe benefits, and pensions in the public sector exceed reasonable limits, it is hard for the private sector to compete and recruit workers, and this slows economic growth. People will tell Klein his claims about reducing poverty ring empty, because it is impossible to say, "We need to deal with the reduction of poverty," while at the same time clinging to the sacred altar and refusing to acknowledge the other half of the problem: the outrageous salaries paid to the elite public employees.

An economist does not need to find legal excuses. He should convince us that the salaries paid to the senior officials in the Bank of Israel are equal to their marginal output of work. He needs to convince us that these senior officials could earn similar amounts in the free market - and everyone knows this is simply not true.

But the public salary record holders are not the port workers, bank employees or even the electric company's employees. The highest salaries belong to the employees of the Bank of Israel. The average wage of the 115 employees at the top of the pyramid at the bank - which is oversized and overly complex - is NIS 41,000 a month. The salaries of the eight members of the senior management are NIS 52,000 a month. The new director-general of the Finance Ministry earns only NIS 31,000 a month. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes NIS 33,000 a month, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon earns only NIS 35,000 a month.

Klein should explain why he thinks a senior official in the bank deserves 68 percent more than the director-general of the treasury. Instead of passing the burden on to Mazuz, Barak should have dealt with the issue straight on and canceled all the agreements that were signed "legally" by the Bank of Israel over the years, because they violate the public good. It is impossible for the bank's employees to talk about poverty and cutbacks while the fat is dripping down their chins.

It is also not clear why the Bank of Israel requires the commercial banks to publish the salaries - and names - of the five highest paid officials in each bank; the Bank of Israel doesn't meet these same standards.

Maybe if they did publish these numbers, we would discover how much the scandalous pensions, the private cars, and dozens of other fringe benefits for the bank's senior officials, really cost.

After all, the banks in Israel are publicly owned, because the public holds half of their equity. But the Bank of Israel is 100 percent publicly owned, because it is completely financed by our money - that of the taxpayers.