Call to Order / Parting Company Over Corruption

At a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee last Wednesday, MK Zevulun Orlev (National Union-National Religious Party) had some very harsh things to say: "I have been feeling very uncomfortable during and between all these discussions because of inappropriate pressure being applied on me and perhaps others as well." The meeting focused on a proposal to amend the Government Companies Law to prohibit the employment of relatives in government companies. Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich, who chairs the lobby against corruption, asked Orlev, who serves as the Knesset State Control Committee chairman, to specify who was pressuring him. MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu said he was uncomfortable with the anonymous accusations.

Orlev responded that he was prepared to retract his comment, but added: "I have served in the Knesset for three terms. I have passed sensitive laws. I have been feeling pressure here to which I am not accustomed."

As Orlev exited the room, he said to me: "Did you ever see such a cadre of corrupt people?" His comment stirred the greatest reaction among the committee members. Orlev later called to clarify that his statement had not been directed at Yachimovich. The natural reaction is then to question whether he was referring to Likud MK Haim Katz and the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), about whom he offered no clarification.

After the meeting, Orlev was asked to detail the pressures he mentioned. Orlev's story is fascinating and offers a tantalizing glimpse of what goes on behind the legislative scenes. But Orlev was not prepared to go into specifics, for fear they might harm certain individuals.

"There have been several kinds of pressure," he said. "The people at the government companies located relatives of mine and NRP activists, and I was inundated with calls from people who made it clear that I'd better drop the matter of this law. They would say: 'Do me a favor, people have asked me to influence you, it's harmful and no good.'"

Orlev said the people who called him were very upset; they said they were liable to be harmed by the bill. "They'd say to me: 'Drop it. Why go looking for trouble?'"

Orlev also enumerated the second kind of pressure: "They started looking for the workplaces of every person in my family. They asked friends of mine. Some of my family members heard they were checking up on them. This I called 'the cadre of corrupt people.'" Most of the pressure, said Orlev, came from Ashdod port and Airports Authority people.

Orlev proposed the law after the State Comptroller's Report revealed a plague of nepotism in government companies. The report that was published last November revealed that 44 percent of Ashdod port employees worked with relatives; the same is true of 25 percent of Haifa port employees, 22 percent of Airports Authority workers, 15 percent of postal service employees, 14 percent of Mekorot water company workers, 13 percent of Israel Railways employees and 27 percent of Israel Electric Corporation employees. In other words, some 3,500 relatives work at the IEC alone. "This situation allows for the creation of clans in public corporations, in a way that interferes with the management of the organization," wrote State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss.

The law Orlev is proposing would apply to government companies and some 200 public corporations that have been established by law. Examples of such corporations: the Airports Authority, the Council for Higher Education, the Bank of Israel, the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and the National Authority for Yiddish Culture. "We are dealing with companies that are public assets," said Orlev. He explained that in the civil service, there is no need for a similar law because the regulations prevent the hiring of relatives. "In the government companies, there is total lawlessness."

Quashing their competitive spirit

MK Haim Katz sees things quite differently. He believes the bill is too extreme, discriminates against many skilled professionals who want to work and prevents the aeronautics industry from competing for capable Israeli engineers. Companies usually leave no stone unturned to find such competent employees, according to Katz. "Why should they be disqualified? That is such stupidity," he said.

"I don't understand Orlev's outburst," Katz said. "Things can be worked out by simply talking, not just saying 'nepotism,' grabbing a headline and slaughtering people in stupid legislation. We didn't come to the Knesset for this. We came to help people. But maybe Orlev is above us, maybe he's a bit haughty."

Katz proposed that Orlev think about "the damage he is doing to people." Katz agreed that a law was needed to limit nepotism, "but it shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater. It shouldn't harm people because they are related to people whom they sometimes don't even know. Let him put some limits into legislation." These limits would determine that each plant is a separate entity for purposes of employing relatives and would not relate to huge companies like the IAI as a single unit.

"They can't go around preaching. They should look me straight in the eye," said Katz. "I'm more honest that the lot of them. The integrity and fairness that I have in my little finger - I don't know if anyone else has that in their whole body."

Katz related the case of an IAI employee. He is in charge of drivers and his son completed graduated from the Technion - Institute of Technology cum laude; he studied aeronautic engineering with a specialization in missiles. "They didn't hire the son at the company [because his father works there - S.I.]. Is that normal?"

Orlev does agree to define each plant as a distinct entity vis-a-vis employing relatives - if and only if there is no conflict of interest and no person manages his own relative. If they all agree to this, then what's the problem?

Orlev says he reached prior agreements with the IAI and Katz nevertheless attacked the proposal. Katz believes Orlev is angry that a number of MKs opposed to the law attended the meeting. "Had he asked me, I would have told him that it was not I who brought the MKs. People at other plants got alarmed and started applying political pressure."

Beyond that there are still substantial disagreements: Under Orlev's proposal, a Finance Ministry special committee will be set up to approve exceptional cases of hiring relatives. But Katz says that "no high-tech graduate is going to wait two or three months for a job at IAI, until the Treasury makes a decision." Instead, according to him, a graduate like that will be snapped up by competing plants."

For many months, the government has told the public that it is about to approve a budget of NIS 5 billion to reinforce public buildings against earthquakes. NIS 5 billion constitutes a large and reassuring sum, although the reinforcement will take place over 20 years. The first hint that the impressive number is written on ice, or in this case on sandy and trembling terrain, was witnessed last Monday at the first meeting of the Knesset committee to examine earthquake preparedness. The Finance Ministry representative reported that her ministry was looking into the request.

Revealing cracks

One possible interpretation of the term "looking into" can be found the document, "The State of Israel's Preparedness and Readiness for Earthquakes," which the Knesset's Research and Information Center prepared. National Infrastructures Ministry Director General Hezi Kugler informed the center that "the Finance Ministry is opposed to the transfer of these sums." He noted that NIS 5 billion is the minimal sum needed to deal with the problem. What is NIS 5 billion needed for? A committee of directors general determined in 2004 that a budget of NIS 10 billion was needed to reinforce the following buildings against earthquakes: 1,850 schools; 5,400 kindergartens; 1,200 public buildings. Another NIS 500-700 million would be needed to reinforce hospitals. Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer agreed to settle on only NIS 5 billion, but as noted - even this sum is a long way from being approved.

Udi Katriel of the development administration at the Education Ministry said at a discussion held by the Knesset Science and Technology Committee in October 2006, that "most of the education buildings are not prepared or ready for the incidence of an earthquake." These are the buildings that the Treasury is not prepared to reinforce. Reminder: Every morning about 2 million students attend school at these buildings.

Dr. Efraim Laor, formerly head of the interministerial steering committee on earthquake preparedness, revealed additional problems with the document he sent to the Knesset Research and Information Center. The body "that is supposed to deal with the incidence of an earthquake is the Israel Police." However, "The Israel Police, even according to the head of the police operations branch, is incapable of carrying out this mission." According to Laor, the Israel Defense Forces is the only organization that has the potential to manage the incidence of an earthquake. However, the IDF currently does not know how to manage such a crisis and its operation to deal with earthquakes ("Snow Ball") will not suffice. For it to be able to deal with an earthquake, the IDF must prepare itself and develop suitable operational doctrines.

In the past, the steering committee recommended that the IDF be the field commander in the case of an earthquake, but the government has still not taken a decision to implement this recommendation.

There is, however, one area in which Israel is indeed prepared: Should the need arise, an Aid Israel Web side will be uploaded (if the building housing the servers doesn't collapse). Such was the conclusion of an interministerial steering committee presentation to the Knesset panel. The site will post news, a list of ways to help devastated areas, e-mail addresses and telephone numbers of emergency organizations, reports from aid groups, links to reports and more.