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.
category would the director-general fall into? Businessman or politician?
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
It was your job to make the government more cohesive?
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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?
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’
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
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
What are some of the disagreements regarding Iran?
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?
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
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.