(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
It's an open secret for anyone in the loop that chaos and confusion reign supreme at Israel's Finance Ministry these days, following serious allegations of corruption against Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson leaked to the public by the police. The most important minister for the economy, short of the prime minister, is fast losing any semblance of control.
As things appear right now, there is no way he can conceivably supervise and administer the national purse, when he himself is beset by ever more discomfiting police probes, while his ministry officials row raucously with each other and with him.
Though, at this juncture, Hirchson is not legally obligated to step down, for the economy's sake he ought to at least take leave - either voluntarily or due to friendly persuasion by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose close associate and sometimes confidante Hirchson is.
The unimaginable bind in which Hirchson now finds himself and the extreme stress imposed on him by police investigators was engraved on his face at the strike-eve press conference last week.
Hirchson appeared exhausted, pale and visibly numbed after grueling, long hours of relentless interrogation. His son Ofer was at that very time still being grilled. Even were he superman, Hirchson could hardly be at his best when his attention is expectedly elsewhere and his energies are unavoidably expended on fending off very serious charges.
Indeed the political arena is rife with suggestions that investigators are leaning on Hirchson to sway him to turn state's evidence against Olmert himself. Hirchson was reportedly the money man of Olmert's closest circle of political allies, most of whom - including Olmert - were linked to the diminutive Histadrut Ovdim Leumit. Hirchson handled finances and organizational tasks in all recent Olmert campaigns. That's likely why Olmert appointed him finance minister. Nobody knows more about Olmert than Hirchson.
For a while as tight a lid as possible was kept on the investigations into Hirchson's past dealings, but nothing can be kept under wraps any longer.
With a tempest raging around Hirchson and unprecedented political and personal pressures besetting him, it's unnatural to assume that he can efficiently function as the man charged with keeping the economy running smoothly and without unwarranted turmoil capable of destabilizing the system.
Besides the police, Hirchson faces challenges from within the ministry. He succeeded in curtailing the authority of accountant-general Yaron Zelicha, who has the state comptroller's ear and has been leveling severe charges at Olmert, but Hirchson cannot get rid of this whistleblower-cum-troublemaker. The squabbles at the Treasury are so endemic and the staff so wary, distrustful and suspicious that effective decision making is stymied.
As always in economic affairs, nothing can be neglected and crucial decisions are forever pending. In the balance hang far-reaching projected reforms such as negative income tax, compulsory pensions, overhauls in the Israel Lands Authority and the Electric Corporation, and even the designation of a new Tax Authority director in place of the one now under investigation himself.
The national interest cannot let these and other equally significant matters be overshadowed by the minister's personal travails, this despite the fact that he has not been so much as indicted.
Suspension is required only when a minister is formally charged. In Hirchson's case, in all fairness, we have nothing but a police recommendation to prosecute him and - as is unfortunately the case in all too many high-profile cases - a deluge of detailed leaks.
It is not the content of these leaks, distressing though they be, which should convince Hirchson to leave office at least temporarily. His primary concern should be the fact that the economy deserves at its helm someone less troubled and preoccupied. There appears to be a baffling disconnect between ministerial paralysis and the nevertheless robust economy - with its strong private sector, no inflation, falling unemployment and positive growth figures. But can we count on such providential circumstances to last indefinitely? It would be foolish to depend on luck. A minister unfettered by his past and grim future challenges, and one who is resolute and possessing credible integrity, is indispensable for our continued economic welfare.
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