The arbitrator

Eyal Gabbai, former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, discusses his experiences working under Binyamin Netanyahu.

By DEBORAH DANAN
March 29, 2012 13:50
Eyal Gabbai

Eyal Gabbai (L) 521. (photo credit: Reuters)

What is the role of the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office?

Assuming that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can be referred to as the CEO of the government of Israel, it follows that the director-general of his office can be addressed as the COO of the government. Let’s say the government needs to set a new budget for 2011/12. The finance minister then submits his proposal for the budget to the PMO. On behalf of the prime minister, the director-general’s job is to then resolve any differences or issues with other ministries before the proposal is submitted to the government.

Another example concerns any reforms that the prime minister would like to see implemented, such as those that Netanyahu initiated regarding the Israel Land [Administration] and zoning laws. The prime minister’s job would be to set outlines for these reforms but it is the director-general who is actually in charge of building them and ensuring that they are both accepted and implemented by the government. That’s the kind of day-to-day work that being the director-general entails.

So which category would the director-general fall into? Businessman or politician?

It’s a senior civil servant position, but usually the prime minister will look for someone with a well established knowledge of the business sector. But the director- general would also need to be someone who is highly familiar with the work of the government. This is because he needs to make sure that the whole government is moving together towards the goal that the prime minister has set.

It was your job to make the government more cohesive?

My nickname within the government and the media was “haborer” – the arbitrator. Every time there was a conflict of interest within the cabinet the prime minister would outline the issue and instruct me to solve it. I would then have to make a decision based upon claims that both sides would make.

Perhaps my final decision would be something that one or both sides would be happy with, but it’s also possible that neither side would be content. But one of the things I learned during my time as director-general is that uncertainty is even worse than losing.

People are tired of disagreements. They look for someone to make the decision, even if they know there’s a chance that it won’t be in their favor. As long as they know that you run a fair table and that you’re not favoring one side over the other, they are willing to submit to your authority.

Can you provide an example where you played arbitrator?

Well, for five years, [Governor of the Bank of Israel] Stanley Fischer tried to pass a new law [for the BoI] to gain independence from the government, as is common practice for central banks throughout the world. The Finance Ministry, on the other hand, had well-established reasons for not wanting the bank to be autonomous, one of which was determining the salaries of BoI employees.

I coordinated between the two bodies and made the decision that some kind of cooperation would continue to exist but that the ultimate decision of things like salaries will rest with the governor of the central bank and not with the Finance Ministry. The bank would still need to adhere to government policies and to some level of governmental supervision.

What is “the Seven” and who is in it?

The Seven consists of the prime minister and six other foreign policy and defense ministers. Netanyahu, Avigdor Liberman, Bogie [Moshe] Ya’alon, Dan Meridor, Ehud Barak, Bennie Begin and Eli Yishai. It is basically an informal discussion group that the prime minister calls upon whenever he sees fit.

It isn’t an official body – the official body is the security cabinet – but because of the size of the government, the cabinet consists of the 14 or 15 ministers and the prime minister finds it hard to run it. Of course formal processes can only go through the security cabinet. But because the Seven is informal, people feel more free to discuss the issues at hand.

Does this exclusive group create friction among other MKs?

Well, since every party is represented at the Seven and also because no formal decisions are being made, no one can argue about it. Its main aim is to aid the prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister. Although having said that, I can imagine that Silvan Shalom is annoyed not to be a part of it.

You’ve known Prime Minister Netanyahu for 15 years. What can you say about him?

Netanyahu is one of the smartest, if not the smartest, people I’ve ever met. He is a fascinating man, with wide knowledge. He knows where he’s heading but he also knows how to delegate. Whenever he delegated an issue to me, he counted on me 100% to let me do the job as I saw fit. This means that as prime minister he can achieve much more because he has learned how to count on his ministers and staff.

When you bring issues to him, he knows how to pick only the most crucial aspects of the issue and deal with those directly. Some people say Netanyahu lacks interpersonal skills, but I would say that he finds them unnecessary. He’s right to the point and has no patience for niceties or small talk or irrelevant issues.

Netanyahu’s right in thinking that the most crucial resource he has as prime minister is time. I always used to tell him “you have a miserable job, because your staff never presents you with easy decisions.” It’s his job to decide between the bad and the worse and manage the risk in the most efficient way possible.

For example, remember the swine flu scare? Netanyahu had to decide whether or not to spend hundreds of millions of shekels to immunize the population. Now that’s lot of money. He needs to consider how many people will be affected. It would have been very easy [for him] to use Israelis’ fear [of the disease] to justify spending that money. Or a more relevant example today would be the question of whether to invest in building more Iron Domes, or rather to invest in something more complicated. There are all kinds of risks that the prime minister needs to calculate.

Do you see another social protest happening in the future?  What has the Trajtenberg Committee done to help resolve some of the issues?

Each person who went out to protest went for his own reasons and no one can claim that there was one voice behind it. Of course, some would like to see another protest happen. But people who are bored this summer will busy themselves with the fact that election dates will be set.

Netanyahu’s free-market policy and a higher rate of growth for the long term is the proper route to take. I was part of the Trajtenberg Committee and it has given answers to the main issues facing the economy. Some adjustments in the social expenses of government needed to be undertaken and this is what the committee has done. I ran the sub-committee for housing and I would say to [protest leader] Itzik Shmuli, that those measures suggested by the Trajtenberg Committee and being adopted by government are changing the balance within the Israeli economy.

Of course the government could not and should not provide solutions to everyone’s issues. But a higher product and higher GDP per capita can and will be achieved through the free-market policy that Netanyahu has been implementing since 2003.

Since then, with the exception of 2009 because of an international crisis, we have witnessed a GDP growth of close to 5% which is very high both by Israeli and international terms. There are those who want to make a political game out of the protest and those who threaten more protests, but this is understandable. However, I think that Netanyahu chooses, rightly, not to act under the political pressure of those people.

Assuming the rocket attacks in the South are connected with Iran, where does Hamas fit into the picture?

Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip is the front outpost of Iran in the Middle East. It is clear that they are trying to move the attention away from the Iranian nuclear operation and into the Gaza Strip. Provoking action in the South is just in order to relieve pressure from Iran. On the one hand, Hamas is not willing to participate in this game because it wants to keep the area quiet and establish control in Gaza, yet on the other, because of its ideology, it cannot act openly against those who attack Israel.

What did you think of Netanyahu’s visit to the White House and what are your thoughts on his relationship with US President Barak Obama?

I think that neither of them are very warm people to begin with. They are both very calculating. But while it’s very clear that there is no personal chemistry, I don’t think that this is something either of them sought. They are well aware of their responsibility and the role they play in their countries’ history.

Obama asked Netanyahu to rely on him and the US. Of course, Netanyahu cannot trust the US without knowing who will become president or whether a future administration will be willing to secure Israel. But I don’t think Netanyahu went [to the US] in order to ask approval from Obama, and neither do I think that Obama was expecting to be asked permission.

But the best way to stop Iran is through sanctions. Netanyahu needs to be a very good poker player and convince Obama that he’s close to acting in order to pressure Obama into implementing paralyzing sanctions – as Netanyahu has requested since his coming into office three years ago. But Obama’s choice to escalate sanctions shows that he realizes that the time frame to deal with Iran is much shorter than the time left until the next election.

Netanyahu has been warning the world about Iran’s nuclear ambitions for years. Why do you think nothing was done earlier?

Netanyahu had only one item on the agenda: Iran. Certainly for the past six years that’s all he’s thought about. But the world is not moved to action unless there is an immediate risk. For Israel’s part, no one had time to take care of the Iranian issue. [Former prime minister Ariel] Sharon was occupied with the disengagement, while [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert was busy with Lebanon.

What are some of the disagreements regarding Iran?

There is really no disagreement between US and Israeli intelligence regarding Iran’s ability to produce a bomb quickly and visibly. The only question is whether the Iranians have decided to or not. The Americans claim that there is no evidence to suggest that they will make a bomb. But the hardest thing to do is to guess and speculate what the moves of a dictator will be.

How do you think the US will react if Israel takes military action against Iran?

I think both Congress and the president are well aware of the extended threat that Israel is facing and Obama said that he recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself. But it’s quite clear that if Israel chooses to attack, some sort of prior knowledge should exist – at least hours before an operation.

For starters, Israeli airplanes will need to go through US-monitored skies. Israel will not attack if it doesn’t think it can succeed. But the question is whether an attack will help in the Iranian mission. Netanyahu doesn’t know any of the factors for sure. He doesn’t know how the Iranians will respond and neither does he know how the world will respond.

Do you think we’re dealing with a sane regime?

Yes, I think that they are the only rational people on the block. They know that they can cross every red line and that the West will back up because they’ve been doing so for the past few years with huge success. Their strategy is very sane and very smart. They have moved forward significantly, and with almost no damage caused to the country.

Let’s assume that Iran has the bomb. In half a year from now, Hezbollah begins rocketing the north of Israel once a week. After that, it moves to once a day. And then every hour. By that time, Israel will not be able to accept any more. The IAF will strike Lebanon  Hezbollah will retaliate with hundreds of rockets all over the North and Israel will have no choice but to move [its forces] on the ground and destroy Hezbollah.

Twenty-four hours later, Ahmadinejad will hold a press conference declaring that Israel has invaded holy Muslim ground. Ahmadinejad will threaten Israel that if it refuses to withdraw [from Lebanon] within 12 hours, Iran will nuke Ra’anana. As the Israeli prime minister, what do you do?

If you withdraw, you’re essentially accepting the right of Hezbollah to attack Israel and opening yourself up to the possibility that it will rocket Israel at will and as often as it likes. If you don’t withdraw, do you take the risk that one of the main cities in central Israel will be targeted with nuclear bombs?

Finally, do you miss political life?

It was interesting, fulfilling and demanding all at the same time. I’ve done my share and I’m happy that I did it, but I’m also happy that it’s over.


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