Editor's Notes: High noon with marshal Zelekha

Zelekha argues that Israel's well-being depends on the continuation of the cleanup of corruption he initiated.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Yaron Zelekha makes for an unlikely Will Kane. Bespectacled, with close-cropped hair and a baby face, he's an accountant, for goodness' sake! But in a rare interview almost four months after he stepped down as Israel's accountant-general, Zelekha invokes Gary Cooper's incorruptible and indomitable Marshal Kane, from Fred Zinnemann's classic Western, to argue that Israel is facing its own High Noon, and that its well-being depends critically on the continuation of the cleanup he initiated of corrupt financial norms across government. Being out of office is plainly good for Zelekha's heath. He looks far less strained than he did the last time I saw him, more than a year ago. He tells me that he's exercising regularly, and it shows. He's also writing two books - one of them "describing the chronic mismanagement of Israel's public sector" - lecturing regularly and writing a Hebrew newspaper column, but still finding plenty of time to be with his wife and two young children. It probably helps his outlook, too, that he no longer has to be shadowed by bodyguards. "I paid a huge price for carrying out root-canal treatment in the government authorities," he says. "There were personal attacks in the newspapers; we had to be accompanied by bodyguards when we went to the park... They threatened my life and my wife's." A year ago, indeed, he complained to the police about various anonymous death threats, and was reported to have cited the Sharon family as allegedly responsible for one of them. Accused by his detractors of being over-zealous, officious and prone to exaggerating claims of wrongdoing, Zelekha, one quickly senses, would have been an easy man for the ministers and bureaucrats to dislike - poking around in the darker recesses of governance, exposing illegal practices that had flourished over decades. And it doesn't particularly help his credibility that his root-canal services were commissioned in late 2003 by then-finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu who, fairly or not, is hardly perceived nationwide as an exemplar of financial propriety. But Zelekha is adamant that Netanyahu was determined to clean house, and backed him as he did so. He is adamant, too, that there are clean politicians all the way across the spectrum - he names Labor's Ophir Paz-Pines and Eitan Cabel, and the National Union/National Religious Party's Zevulun Orlev and Arye Eldad, among others. And his insistence that he fought a vital uphill battle against endemic misdealings and malpractices certainly gains weight from the fact that one of those who pushed hardest and most assiduously for his ouster was Avraham Hirchson, the finance minister who twice moved to curb Zelekha's authority - over credit payments to cash-strapped local authorities and over the tender for providing banking services to state employees. Hirchson, of course, was subsequently forced to resign last summer, amid allegations of embezzlement and money-laundering. Now, looking back on his four years in the anti-corruption frontline, over coffee in his favorite neighborhood cafe, Zelekha veritably lectures me about the appalling practices he uncovered and halted, firing accusations in both predictable and more surprising directions. He stresses, first, that his department's authority extended across only a quarter to a third of the public sector - covering government offices and the budget, but not including, for instance, the Israel Lands Administration, the local authorities, state companies and public monopolies such as the Ports Authority, the airports and the Israel Postal Company. He also notes that he was the first accountant-general - "and I fear I may turn out to be the last" - to come to the job "from the outside, from the business sector." He rapidly realized, he says, that "private, business sector norms were absent. I found a culture of darkness," he declares. "There were fictionalized financial reports. There were tax illegalities dating back 50 years." There were also inadequate financial controls over major infrastructure projects. And there was absent oversight of the entire government wage sector - which constitutes 30 percent of government spending and for which "no one had checked the criteria for pay, the benefits, the grades, whether the employees were even actually coming to work..." His voice rises in indignation. Zelekha goes on to make a series of general and specific allegations against various "rotten politicians," the civil service commissioner (for making appointments without following proper procedures), the attorney-general (for transferring the oversight of the privatization process at Bank Yahav to a minister, Hirchson, who was already suspected of fraud and whom the attorney-general knew was under investigation) and others - some of which have been or are being probed. He insists that in those areas where he was able to gain effective financial supervision, corrupt practices have now been righted. "We left no stone unturned, no contract unchecked. We instituted oversight over all government contracts, all big infrastructure projects, all tax exemptions. We imposed controls on wages and pensions. We checked government purchasing and management of assets. We made the allocation of funds to non-profit organizations transparent, publishing the details on the Internet, so that the public could see." In the process, says Zelekha, "we saved NIS 10 billion per year in the public sector. And believe me," he goes on, "it didn't take a genius to figure out where that 10b. was being lost. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that granting wider authority [to the accountant-general] would save a whole lot more: 10b. will turn into NIS 30b." He points out that it's Israeli society and the taxpayer who carry the burden of wasted or corruptly diverted money. And he adds that "all reforms come at the expense of the people who were enjoying the previous, corrupt or mismanaged situation." Hence the pressure to oust him, he says, and the threats. "Hundreds of reforms galvanized a powerful coalition of politicians, bureaucrats and beneficiaries, who were aiming to deter us at all cost." DESPITE ALL this, Zelekha believes that most of those in the government bureaucracy are clean. "But they lack the strength to change a rotten system." Zelekha asks rhetorically, "You know the proverb about a fish stinking from the head? Well, it's not true actually... not in fish. Only in people." And he then launches into a furious assault on Israel's government and its head that would seem to extend beyond the particular remit of his former office. He describes the meeting at which the decision was taken to go to war against Hizbullah in 2006 as "surreal," working his way around the cabinet table and in turn lambasting a finance minister under a corruption cloud (Hirchson), a justice minister who would later be convicted for a sex offense (Haim Ramon), a defense minister who knew nothing about his field (Amir Peretz) and a prime minister who was facing a welter of investigations (Ehud Olmert). "We're led without values, on the road to nowhere," Zelekha says dramatically, elaborating by recalling the "government impotence" of the Second Lebanon War: "I'm not talking about the way the war was run. Look at the home front - there were inadequate bomb shelters; no food, water. The private sector had to take over." "We almost always issued a tender for any government contract," he adds. "But one of my few exceptions, last year, enabled the government to commission the protection of Sderot without a tender. It wasn't done. Why? Not because of a lack of money, but because nobody cared. Three years have passed and the Gaza evacuees still lack permanent homes. But this was a planned disengagement! In the private sector, we wouldn't let these people run a grocery store." In making comments like these, Zelekha sounds like nothing so much as an opposition politician. And he must know it, because he takes pains to highlight that "I have no political aspirations. I'm an accountant - a ro'eh heshbon. It was my job to see and to show - to show the public what was being done with its money. Now I'm writing my book, and the book will complete my process." BUT THE fight, he says, must go on. "We're the most corrupt country in the Western world," he claims, basing himself on the Berlin-based NGO Transparency International's annual "Corruption Perceptions Index." "We're ranked between Uruguay and Jordan." And here is where he invokes Zinnemann's 1952 Western and its leading character. "Gary Cooper's in his last 90 minutes of his job as marshal [of the fictional Hadleyville]," Zelekha recalls, "and he's let down by everyone [including his own deputy and, initially, his new young wife] as he prepares to protect the townsfolk [from the newly released Frank Miller and his gang, who had terrorized the community before]. But he doesn't run away. And he defeats the bad guys. And then he throws down his marshal's star and leaves Hadleyville forever, in disgust." "That mustn't happen here," says Zelekha, who, I should stress, makes no overt self-identification with the abandoned, defiant, victorious and disillusioned Cooper character. "People mustn't read this and think everyone is corrupt. That's not the case. We've got to keep our eyes open and take action. "It's a hard struggle and it's dangerous and it's scary," he concludes, by now sounding thoroughly Cooper-esque. "But it's not impossible. You can wage it and get home safely. Everyone can make a difference." And with that, former marshal Yaron Zelekha tips his hat, saddles up his horse and rides, if not out of town, then to a quieter neighborhood.