Think About It: The futile comptroller's report

Report does not only deal with the sad state of the firefighting system, but alludes to much broader governance problems.

311_Micha Lindenstrauss (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
311_Micha Lindenstrauss
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The 506 pages of the State Comptroller’s Report on the Carmel fire in December 2010, in the course of which 44 persons lost their lives, is without doubt an important document. They are a blueprint for vital reforms, if anyone implements them, and the basis for numerous dismissals if anyone bothers to carry them out.
The report not only deals with the sad state of the firefighting system in Israel – its extreme decentralization, insufficient and antiquated equipment, chronic shortage of funds and alleged institutional decay – as well as the various malfunctions in the way the whole Carmel fire episode was dealt with by the ministers and authorities concerned, but alludes to much broader governance problems, of which this particular episode is but a symptom.
Briefly, the governance problem in Israel manifests itself in the absence of comprehensive and systematic planning and decision making at the government level, in the frequent failure to execute decisions that have been taken, and the total absence of a culture of personal responsibility.
What is most frustrating about this state of affairs is that Israel is not a dysfunctional state, and it is rich in talent and expertise in almost every conceivable field. There is also no absence of awareness regarding most of the problems that the state confronts, such as the water shortage, the danger of earthquakes, the diminishing number of children studying sciences at school and of students graduating in the sciences from universities, a “black economy” (unreported economic activity) with an annual turnover estimated at tens of billions of shekels – to mention but a few.
What is the cause of this governance problem? To a large extent it is the result of the make-up of our governments and the manner in which they operate, which in turn are the result of our highly heterogeneous society, deep ideological divides, and the current political system.
Clearly it is much easier to run a country with a parliamentary system such as ours when a single party has an absolute majority in the parliament, and the prime minister has reasonable control over the MPs from his own party. In Israel not only has no single party ever enjoyed an absolute majority in the Knesset, but over the years the coalitions have become increasingly less coherent. In fact, the prime minister does not have a single coalition agreement to which all the government’s members are committed, but separate agreements with each of his coalition partners, which not infrequently contradict each other.
In this situation many coalition members are at least as busy trying to block the initiatives of other members as they are in promoting their own initiatives, while it sometimes looks like the Finance Ministry is trying to frustrate all initiatives coming from other ministries.
The prime minister, for his part, is busy trying to keep his coalition together by alternating the distribution of tidbits to his various coalition partners, and trying to maintain a modicum of discipline among unruly members of his own party, in order to avoid chaos.
Of course, it is much easier to point out the problem than suggests ways of resolving it. For example, turning Israel into a homogeneous society which could produce a stable two-party system simply isn’t an option. But is it too much to ask that our prime minister – “King of Israel,” as he was dubbed by Time magazine – take a serious look at some aspects of other parliamentary systems, that might be applied in Israel, and improve the situation here?
In the UK, for example, at the beginning of the parliamentary year the Queen presents to a joint meeting of the two Houses of Parliament a comprehensive and systematic policy program that delineates what “her government” is planning to do in the next year, including a detailed list of bills it plans to bring for the approval of Parliament. Only in extraordinary circumstances is there a divergence from this program. Similar practices exist in other parliamentary democracies.
But it isn’t even necessary to look overseas. In the previous government, an attempt was made by then-government secretary Oved Yehezkel to introduce changes that would improve the decision making process within the government, and the government’s mutual relations with the Knesset. When the current government was formed, these initiatives simply went down the drain. Why?
Though Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent coalition agreement with Kadima included a provision for the presentation by Kadima of a program for changes in Israel’s system of government, I very much doubt whether any of the issues mentioned above will be addressed, and am skeptical whether any real reforms will result from the exercise.
So what we are left with is the State Comptroller’s report to remind us of our predicament, and of the fact that redemption seems nowhere in sight.
The writer teaches at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College and was a Knesset employee for many years.