The Bottom Line / Reform Fever

The question sweeping the business sector with Ilan Cohen's appointment was who set the other one straight? Did Sharon appoint Cohen to mend his own ways, or was Cohen merely to be a fig leaf for Sharon's machinations?

Ilan Cohen, the manager of a strategic consultancy company, raised eyebrows when he took the helm as director-general of the Prime Minister's Office. After all, Cohen is no politico nor a practitioner of political wheeling-and-dealing. He is strictly a businessman and an economist, with a reputation as a fair and serious man - not exactly the traits deemed necessary for one charged with accompanying Ariel Sharon along the twists and turns of his journey as prime minister.

The gap in the ethical norms between Sharon and Cohen seemed insurmountable. The question sweeping the business sector with Cohen's appointment was who set the other one straight? Did Sharon appoint Cohen to mend his own ways, or was Cohen merely to be a fig leaf for Sharon's machinations?

The mystery persisted throughout Cohen's first few months in the job, particularly regarding the Bachar Committee reforms. Committee members got the impression that he supported its recommendations; yet after the report was finalized, Cohen was the one who fed the press with news items that the prime minister had reservations about certain recommendations, and that they would have to be altered in order to receive government approval.

With economic correspondents full of speculation, it appeared that Cohen had transformed into a rubber stamp for Sharon and Sons, Inc.

That is, until Sunday.

Cohen gave his take on Bachar at the cabinet meeting. Cohen made it crystal clear that he strongly supported all the important points, having only reservations about the recommendation for distribution fees, and even then understandably. Moreover, Cohen does not blame Bachar for taking extreme measures in banking reform. If anything, he felt it had not gone far enough.

"The Bachar Committee reforms," wrote Cohen, "do not touch upon a more substantial problem - discrimination against households and small businesses by giving them inferior credit terms and smaller interest on savings. Along with the reform, ways to fix this problem should be examined." Hallelujah.

It is safe to say that the PMO director-general is himself (and also on behalf of his boss) calling for continued investigation into domination of the banking sector, and essentially wants to complete the needed step that Bachar dared not recommend - divesting the banks of the credit card companies. The banks won't be able to attack this step with the claim that it goes against the grain of what is done elsewhere.

With one sentence Cohen stole the show. From a shady character who arouses suspicion in everyone about his motives, Cohen transformed into someone bearing the message of reform in Israel in general and in the Bachar reforms in particular.

Some wonder if Cohen was trying to prove that he is not the PM's rubber stamp. Others said Cohen was simply jealous of his friend Joseph Bachar, and wants to leave behind a legacy of making an important contribution to the economy, too. It's very possible, and that's fine. If these two friends - Cohen and Bachar - are about to leap into competition with each other over who can extract more reforms, the country can only bless the phenomenon.