The Goof-up Government

The Tartman affair shows the unbearable lightness with which a crook and a fraud can join the government and participate in the leadership of the country.

Once again the political reality in Israel has gone beyond the television satire, and the tourism minister-designate, Yisrael Beiteinu MK Esterina Tartman, has emerged as a far more grotesque figure than the sado queen with the whip who represents her on "Wonderful Country." What a riot: Another opinionated and chattering politician is led to public humiliation after having been caught in miserable cheating. Tartman's crude racism has added a lot of schadenfreude to her stumble.

Only when we calm down from splitting our sides do we discover that the joke isn't on Tartman, but on us all. Her fabricated degrees and her statements in her insurance claim that she is unable to work for more than four hours a day were discovered just a moment before Tartman took her place at the government table. But the ones who discovered them were journalists, and not an authorized official body. Once again it emerged that in Israel there is no mechanism for sifting out candidates for minister. It is enough for the head of a coalition faction to desire the appointment of a crony as a minister for the candidate to receive responsibility for a government ministry and partnership in life-and-death decisions.

Under the existing approach, anyone in the public service, from soldiers doing their compulsory service to directors general, ambassadors and chiefs of general staff must go through a process of classification and examination for suitability. Everyone, that is, except for Knesset members and government ministers, for whom the acceptance qualifications are zero. This gap is usually explained by the principle of democracy, whereby everyone is entitled to be elected and stand for the public's consideration and that the main qualifications required of government ministers are good judgment, the ability to make decisions and political savvy, and not education or professional experience.

This method is rotten through and through. It is possible to debate whether candidates for ministerial positions need prior experience in the area of their ministries; whether the minister of justice must be a lawyer, the health minister a doctor and the education minister a teacher. This question arose in connection with the appointment of Amir Peretz as defense minister and in the matter of his suitability for the position. No one denies his qualifications to be the minister in an economic or social ministry, which would be congruent with his experience as chairman of the Histadrut labor federation. But there is doubt as to his ability to head the defense establishment and to lead the Israel Defense Forces in a war.

The Tartman affair is entirely different. The question here is not her suitability for the position of minister of tourism, but rather the unbearable lightness with which a crook and a fraud can join the government and participate in the leadership of the country. She has arrived at the top without anyone having checked her curriculum vitae and asking her to show her diplomas or to make a sworn statement about her ability to work.

Even before her current appointment, Tartman headed the Knesset State Control Committee and was exposed to secret reports about the security establishment. Was she required to undergo a security check, like every citizen who receives a permit to enter the Knesset building? Had she wanted to be accepted for work as a secretary, or even as an executive in a large organization, she would have been hassled with suitability tests. Would she have passed the personality questionnaires? Would she have fulfilled the simple requirement to present documents?

The state is in need of a filtering mechanism that will sift out candidates for positions as Knesset members and government ministers and ensure minimal threshold requirements for public office. This change should be led by the prime minister. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has behaved like a petty politician in the Tartman affair and has hidden behind the custom that the prime minister does not intervene in the appointment of ministers from other parties. This is an evasion of responsibility, just as in his hands-off approach to the appointment of the police commissioner. The legal authority to appoint ministers is given to Olmert, and it was his public responsibility to express his opinion and say that frauds have no place at the government table.

The cumulative result of the weekly scandals is that the Olmert government looks like a goof-up government, like a ghost train with no driver. Olmert apparently thinks that his ministers' entanglements decrease the danger of a coalition crisis, which would lead to his fall and to new elections. The worse it gets for them, the better he will float quietly above them. But the weakest link determines the strength of the chain, and the face of his government is like Tartman's face. This is Olmert's opportunity to show some leadership, to make some order and to introduce a reform in the appointment of ministers that will obligate them to suitability checks and a public hearing before they are accepted into the government. The expectation inherent in the Basic Laws that the system would filter itself was suited to the past century and not to Tartman's world.