Open the doors of Beit Hanassi

Entering into a power struggle with Lindenstrauss has only worked against President Peres.

Peres 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Peres 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
President Shimon Peres contended last week that his office was immune from any scrutiny, even by the state comptroller. Later his representatives backed down a tad and announced that while the comptroller's examiners would still not be granted access to the presidential administration (Beit Hanassi), the office might agree to an inspection but would choose its own inspectors. The public was informed that Beit Hanassi is "completing preparations" to issue a tender for "outside auditors." Peres's intention to appoint his own comptroller (if he cannot avoid an inspection altogether) is disconcertingly reminiscent of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's refusal to subject his management of 2006's Second Lebanon War to a full-fledged state commission of inquiry. A state commission is empowered to draw "personal conclusions" and the panel's make-up is beyond the control of the chief object of its investigation. Instead Olmert opted for a government-appointed committee, whose members were handpicked and whose powers were limited. But the Peres episode's corrosive effects on the country's civic wellbeing are potentially still more detrimental, despite the absence of a dramatic trigger - indeed, perhaps precisely because it revolves around checks of routine operations. At stake isn't a single episode such as the 2006 war - immensely tragic, costly and damaging though that was. Involved here, rather, is a basic principle whose significance cannot be overstated: that no publicly-funded institution be above the law, its functioning exempt from transparency and accountability. The president should know better than to contend that this is the case with his own administration. Undoubtedly tied up in this face-off is a history of bad relations between Peres and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss. These came to a head following Lindenstrauss's 2006 report on the Labor Party's leadership primary, in which Lindenstrauss ruled that Peres had received substantial illicit contributions during his 2005 bid for the Labor leadership and that these sums ought to be paid back. Now, members of Peres's staff have told the press they "have greater trust in outside comptrollers. We had bad experiences with this comptroller." Yes, Lindenstrauss is known for his toughness and tenacity. For this he deserves not presidential approbation, but admiration and support. Basic Law - Israel's rudimentary constitution - incontrovertibly supports Lindenstrauss's position. The Basic Law: State Comptroller/Section 2 exposes all "institutions of the state" to the comptroller's supervision. Beit Hanassi is one such institution. Past state comptrollers Miriam Ben-Porat and Eliezer Goldberg both audited Beit Hanassi. The single privilege the president enjoys by law is immunity from prosecution for infractions "arising from his duties or authority" - and even this immunity is not absolute. The comptroller's inspection is nothing akin to prosecution. It is a legally mandated check not of the president's own actions but of Beit Hanassi's operations, such as the issuing of tenders, contracts with consultants and the hiring of employees. This was a check begun under the previous comptroller and the previous president, whose resumption should have been routine. Yet two months ago the comptroller's staffers were denied admission when they showed up at Beit Hanassi to look into tenders and employment practices. Lindenstrauss avers that "this is a matter of principle. I won't under any condition back down. No institution is exempt from public scrutiny." He has made clear that "we are not going to delve into presidential decision-making but just into how a public institution is run." And he has promised that his representatives will revisit Beit Hanassi on April 1. This is a showdown that Peres is eventually bound to lose, which makes his obstinacy plainly incomprehensible. It is inflicting more harm on the presidency, and on the president himself, than Lindenstrauss ever could. And Peres's intransigency is fuelling speculation that he truly has something to hide. By turning an unremarkable investigation into a power play, he has created a situation where he may ultimately need Lindenstrauss's investigation to produce the clean bill of health that will set the record straight and salvage his own reputation.