The State Comptroller and Israel's political culture

Justice Micha Lindenstrauss is nearing the end of a 7-year term as State Comptroller. The Knesset has already selected his successor, and commentators have summed up what has been described as Lindenstrauss'' "tumultuous" term, comparing it to the activities of his predecessors, and contemplating what he has meant for Israel''s present and future.
The Israel Democracy Institute hosted a round table discussion spanning three hours from the late afternoon to the early evening, with decent sandwiches. The 20 or so participants included Lindenstrauss, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, several present or former members of the Knesset who have been ministers in the government or members of the committee with responsibility for examining the Comptroller''s reports, present or former senior civil servants, as well as a few professors, most of them individuals who combined academic and governmental careers. Those who are comfortable with Hebrew can access a video of the meeting when the Institute puts it on its website.
Criticism of the Comptroller''s activity was pointed and sharp, but well argued and usually coupled with comments that the issues were difficult, nuanced, and required a careful consideration of conflicting values. There was an occasional raising of voices, but no shouting. A strong moderator did what he could to stay close to the format of issues defined in advance.
Central to the meeting was a consideration of two questions. Whether the Comptroller should aspire to audit and criticize governmental actions in "real time," or while they are unfolding? And whether the Comptroller should limit reports to failures by governmental entities, or actually name the individuals considered to be responsible for improper, undesirable, or dangerous actions, or their failure to act to prevent such actions by others?
The consensus seemed to be that Lindenstrauss was not all that different from previous Comptrollers, but that he differed in significant degree. He more often sought to deal with highly controversial issues while in the headlines, rather than take the conventional auditor''s route of waiting until they have played themselves out and criticize those who have erred. He also has been more active in naming individuals felt to have acted in contrast with law, regulation, or the public interest, rather than following the conventional norm of state auditors in other countries of not naming names, but criticizing units of government that have overspent their budgets or fallen afoul of some other regulation.
Several of the Comptroller''s critics commented in ways that seemed to reflect their personal experience with him, or something else in their careers that left them with an ax to grind. Most dealt with one or another provision of the laws that define the role of the State Comptroller, and contended that a particular report fit within the provision, violated a provision, or was in a gray area that demanded more careful consideration by this Comptroller and his successor.
My own perspective, reflecting research into Comptrollers of Israel and other countries, as well as an occasional task as consultant with several of Lindenstrauss'' predecessors, is that details of the law are less important than its wide expanse, and its inclusion of "moral integrity" as a criterion of audit. This sets Israel''s Comptroller apart from others, whose authority is typically defined as dealing with issues of legality, economy, efficiency, and effectiveness.
"Moral integrity" reflects an element long ingrained in Jewish culture, at least since the Prophet Amos said that God demands justice, and sees it as more important than the observance of religious rituals. (Amos 5) This cultural trait helps to explain Jews'' appreciation of argument and criticism, and goes a long way in explaining the creation and maintenance of Israel''s democracy, despite its experience of trauma of the kinds employed by other countries to excuse their lack of democracy.
With access to all government bodies and other entities associated with government in one way or another, as well as the discretion to criticize them for moral failings, Israel''s State Comptroller has the potential to be a major actor in policymaking and political circles. Survey research shows that the public holds the Office of the State Comptroller in high regard. Its reports are assured prominence, at least for a day or two, in all major media. Some of its reports have been instrumental in affecting government decisions about matters involving great expense, numerous citizens, and sensitive issues of political values.
Like other actors in the overheated center of Israeli politics, the State Comptroller does not only criticize others, but feels the heat of severe criticism about his (or her) own work. (One of Lindenstrauss'' predecessors as State Comptroller, with a record hardly less aggressive than his, was former Supreme Court Justice Miriam Ben-Porat.)
This week''s round table at the Israel Democracy Institute was part of the heat that Comptrollers must endure, even while it was moderate, well-spoken, and otherwise more civilized than some committee or plenary meetings of the Knesset, street demonstrations, and a great number of unrecorded discussions among family members and friends in Israeli homes.