Toward a Worthy Comptroller

What is taking place ahead of the appointment of the next comptroller raises concerns that Israel will not get the comptroller it deserves, but one the politicians want.

One of the most important windows in Israel opened last week very quietly, without the squeak of shutters, and for only two months, until May 30. That's the period the law provides for the selection of the State Comptroller, from 90 to 30 days before the end of the term of the current comptroller. Retired Justice Eliezer Goldberg, the current comptroller, will finish his final report at the end of June, for delivery in the fall.

Like the president of the state, the comptroller has one seven-year term, and both are chosen by the Knesset. Unlike the president, who almost always comes from the world of politics (scientist Ephraim Katzir was the exception to that rule) and sometimes returns to it (Yitzhak Navon), the comptroller is meant to be kept at a distance from politics, almost alien to it. That is the practice. But what is taking place ahead of the appointment of the next comptroller raises concerns that the State of Israel will not get the comptroller it deserves, but one the politicians want.

Goldberg arrived at the comptroller's office from the Supreme Court. The popular assumption is that those who sit on the highest bench in the land are accustomed to ruling without prejudice and through a decent interpretation of the law and the facts. Goldberg, according to someone who watched him work up close, indeed fits that bill. He was a judge-like comptroller, who didn't give discounts, nor leanings, and his practices and customs only added to his reputation - indeed, a far better reputation than his predecessor's, former justice Miriam Ben-Porat.

What was good for the state was bad for the politicians, including premiers, whose apparent campaign crimes came to Goldberg's attention and from there were directed to the attorney general and to police investigations.

Ariel Sharon has no reason to look for a new Goldberg. The attorney general and people close to his position in importance must be fit to serve on the Supreme Court, but the state comptroller is only required - hard to believe - to be "any citizen of the state residing in the country." What a difficult burden, to be a citizen and a resident - but with a bit of effort, millions of potential candidates could be found, or another Stanley Fisher could be imported.

Certain kinds of community and financial activity are forbidden to the comptroller during his or her term, and they are required to go through a cooling-off period after completing the term before joining any agency or body that is subject to the comptroller's investigations.

But there is no need for a cooling-off period before the appointment, like the cooling-off period applied to an MK who wants to serve as chairman of the Knesset Comptroller's Committee - the law prohibits any minister, deputy minister, ministry director general or deputy director general from serving as chairman for two years after they have finished serving in one of those positions. Perhaps that is to avoid the state comptroller, who reports to the committee, from becoming subject to vengeance by one of his or her former subjects.

Comptrollers can come from inside the Knesset, or a party's central committee, or anywhere else as long as 10 MKs support them, and nominate them for a secret balloting that can last several rounds and be full of surprises, like the vote in which Shimon Peres lost to Moshe Katsav.

To win another supporter in the Knesset, or to make room in the parliament for Pnina Rosenbloom to take up a seat in the plenum, Sharon could offer the job of comptroller to one of the members of his caucus unlikely to win election to the Knesset in the next elections. Sharon's failure to name the ministers last week raised doubts about his ability to nominate a candidate who would win a majority in the vote, but the secrecy of the ballot makes dark deals possible, without any public transparency.

On the assumption that Goldberg's successor does not come from the Likud's central committee but from the court, the circumstances of the appointment are an invitation to corruption. The next comptroller will pick up where Goldberg left off on the examination of the process of evacuating Gaza and the northern West Bank. Within months, at most a year-and-a-bit, the next comptroller will also be monitoring the next elections.

For the politicians, the temptation to choose a comptroller to their liking is enormous, and for the candidates, the temptation is enormous to be sycophantic toward the politicians, from all the parties. The temptation for the potential candidates - usually from among the judges - is to move to the middle, to show new understanding for the needs of the political establishment (especially for a judge who previously was known for his sharp criticism of that establishment), or alternatively to press for a plea bargain that benefits an accused with influence in the Arab community, if it is a judge trying to repaint a reputation as one who kowtows to the security establishment.

To prevent any rumormongering, it would be best to prohibit judges from becoming state comptrollers for a period of two years after they complete their term on the bench. Under the current circumstances, without a cooling-off period, it would be best to enlist a judge who doesn't aspire to the job. The acting president of the Supreme Court, Mishael Cheshin, for example, who fought with Sharon in the last elections when Cheshin served as Elections Commissioner, could be an excellent candidate - so he probably doesn't have much of a chance.