Aviv Kochavi, Sara Netanyahu and whether the comptroller still matters

There was a time where top officials blamed by the comptroller were forced to resign – or at least considered damaged goods, unfit for further promotion.

Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi briefs US military representative Joseph F. Dunford (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi briefs US military representative Joseph F. Dunford
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Friday’s announcement of Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s nomination as the likely next IDF chief of staff begs the question of whether the Office of the State Comptroller still matters.
Kochavi had come to be viewed as the lead candidate in IDF circles – but going back to the 2014 Gaza war and the comptroller’s February 2017 report on the war’s failures, many thought that his career might be over.
He had been the IDF’s intelligence chief leading into and during the war and, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others in the defense establishment, was blamed by the comptroller for underestimating the Hamas tunnel threat and for misjudging Hamas’s general readiness for war.
There was a time where top officials blamed by the comptroller were forced to resign – or at least considered damaged goods, unfit for further promotion.
Not Kochavi.
The current deputy chief of staff appears to have escaped the comptroller’s cross-hairs due to a combination of factors.
On the one hand are his successes in other areas: bringing IDF intelligence forward both operationally and technologically, and field command successes on the Northern Front as well as during the Second Intifada in the West Bank.
Another factor was that neither Netanyahu nor the defense establishment was ready to accept blame for their being blindsided regarding the Hamas tunnel threat or its readiness for war, which meant that they also needed to protect Kochavi, or risk looking hypocritical.
Let’s look at a strong counterexample.
The comptroller’s February 2015 report on the excessive expenses of the Netanyahu family, and of Sara Netanyahu in particular, substantially helped lead to the criminal investigation against her and her trial which started earlier this month.
While the report did not explicitly call Sara’s misuse of state funds criminal – the comptroller does not have the clear authority to determine criminality – the report’s comments that her actions were problematic and potentially criminal are as strong as comptroller comments get.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit and the police made the final decisions about investigating and prosecuting, but the comptroller report set in motion a series of events and the momentum that put Mrs. Netanyahu in jeopardy.
A middle-of-the-road example would be the comptroller’s July 2017 report on problems related to the Bezeq-Yes merger.
Unlike the report on Sara Netanyahu, which pointed the finger directly at her, this report carefully avoided pointing the finger at the prime minister for anything other than violating possible conflicts of interest in a vacuum.
In other words, the report went after Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch and then Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber – also a top ally of the prime minister – for problematic conduct with regard to the merger.
However, regarding Netanyahu – who was also communications minister at the time – there was only criticism that he should have stepped down from heading that ministry to avoid any appearance of impropriety in making decisions related to his friend, Elovitch.
The comptroller even avoided reviewing the prime minister’s prior decisions for specific conflict violations – something cited by Mandelblit as a way of diminishing criticism that he had not kept the prime minister’s conflicts on a tight enough leash.
Certainly, the comptroller’s report did not help the prime minister regarding what developed into the Bezeq-Walla Affair, but earlier and continued media reports likely propelled the case into the hands of law enforcement more than the report did.
Then there is the long list of issues about which the comptroller has been mostly ignored.
The reports urging the state to have a more open approach toward many issues, including African migrants; calling for immediate improvement to home-front defense for Bedouins; various reports on medical and pollution issues; inadequate policing of the Arab sector; and drones.
Besides those issues, the comptroller’s reports have occasionally altered the playing field: as with the collective home-care sector and with the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. Families left the collective home-care sector for other alternatives after the comptroller noted that the lack of oversight meant inadequate care for the elderly.
KKL-JNF is still in the comptroller’s cross-hairs for improper management of its finances, but the battle is now about how much reform there should be of the organization, not whether there should be reforms.
When carefully analyzed, the above and other cases show that the comptroller by himself with his reports is generally powerless to get top politicians and power-brokers to make major change or resign. He certainly cannot derail someone as widely praised as Kochavi.
However, his reports can provoke debates.
And if he hooks onto an issue which was already a potential political liability – or one which is just a question of problematic governance but does not harm top politicians – his reports can lead to change and the downfall of mid-level power-brokers. This is especially true if it is a criminal issue where the comptroller acts to push the attorney-general along.