Viewpoint / Club of Thugs

If Menachem Mazuz had been in a good mood on Sunday, then maybe he chuckled at his change in profession, from the attorney general of the State of Israel to kindergarten teacher arbitrating between cabinet ministers. If, on the other hand, Mazuz had been feeling somber, then he may have been concerned about his new responsibility, of ruling on how the national budget should be allocated.

If he was simply feeling sensible and sat down to analyze the matter, then he probably wound up annoyed to the core - annoyed at the spectacle of one thug bristling at another thug, both calling themselves senior ministers and purporting to be Israel's next prime minister at that.

Willy-nilly, Mazuz found himself dragged into the ring. It was the director-general of the Industry and Trade Ministry, Raanan Dinur, who dragged him there, by writing a letter complaining about "extortion" by the Finance Ministry. Dinur didn't actually send the letter of complaint to Mazuz, by the way. He sent it to the press, but withdrew it before Mazuz had received a copy. Yet the headlines did their work; the Industry and Trade Ministry was accusing the treasury of extortion because the treasury refused to transfer NIS 310 million to the ministry. The treasury refused to transfer this sum because it disapproves of the Communications Authority bill that the trade minister, Ehud Olmert, has formulated.

Even though Mazuz never actually got the letter, its content is true enough. The treasury did refuse to transfer the NIS 310 million because of an argument over Olmert's activities wearing his hat as communications minister.

The Industry and Trade Ministry justifiably reasoned that it isn't the treasury's business to link the budget of one capacity with the performance in another capacity. The ministry is fretting that the rivalry between Olmert and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the real issue at stake.

Really, even if the budget in question had been entirely associated with the communications portfolio, one has to wonder by what right and authority the treasury is withholding approved budgets. Its concept that ministries will get their budgets only if all disputes with the treasury are settled is abuse of power. If that isn't extortion, what is?

It is little surprise that industry is accusing the treasury of thuggishness.

Yet it is also hard to raise an eyebrow at the treasury's umbrage. The ministries of Finance, Communications, Justice, Education and the Prime Minister's Office itself have been bitterly battling over the future of communications regulation for a year and a half and, finally, they reached a common model - abolishing the Communications Ministry and replacing it with an apolitical authority. The government officially approved the model by a resolution and a bill was drafted, liquidating the ministry and creating purely regulatory supervision.

And then along came Olmert, received the soon-to-be-defunct communications portfolio, threw out all the accords, and wrote a new bill. His version expands the powers of the communications minister to the point that abolishing the ministry is entirely pointless. One might as well leave it in place with its minister; at least then the political intervention would be open and unabashed.

Olmert took the law into his own hands, scorning the government resolutions and all the work that had been done. All attempts to persuade him to honor the previous accords were in vain. Olmert insisted on submitting his bill to the ministerial legislative committee; all the treasury can do is watch in frustration. Sit back - or respond to Olmert's thuggishness with its own.

Sometimes one simply brims with pride at how government is handled in Israel.