Ousting the reformer

Zelekha has been a constant thorn in the side of this gov't and predecessor administration under Sharon.

olmert Zelekha 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
olmert Zelekha 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yaron Zelekha, the man tasked by then-finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu four years ago with rooting out corruption and correcting improper financial norms across government, is now being rooted out himself. The accountant-general has been informed by Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On that when his contract comes to an end in October, it will not be renewed. Formally, it has been stressed, Zelekha has not been fired. In practice, if Bar-On's move is not blocked by the Supreme Court or elsewhere, he will have been. Zelekha has been a constant thorn in the side of this government and its predecessor administration under Ariel Sharon. He has asserted publicly that "the State of Israel is more corrupt than it might appear to an observer from the outside." When, in its rankings last year, the anti-corruption NGO placed Israel in a dismal 34th place on its honesty barometer, down from 16th place in 2001 and now below the likes of Chile, Uruguay, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, his response was: "We're lucky that the researchers [at Transparency International] are unaware of the entire truth.... Once Israelis would be offended when their country was compared to a South American republic," he went on. "Today, those who would get offended [by the comparison] are the South Americans." During his stint as finance minister, Ehud Olmert accused Zelekha of "improper and subversive activities toward his colleagues," and reported the accountant-general's alleged misdeeds to Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz. But Zelekha's constant assertions of impropriety have resonated because they come against a background of a welter of incidents of alleged corruption: Our last finance minister, Avraham Hirchson, who also reportedly wanted Zelekha out, has had to resign to try to fight off allegations of financial impropriety; the former environment minister Tzahi Hanegbi is on trial for making allegedly illegal political appointments to the ministry; the Tax Authority has been plunged into disarray by allegations of widespread improprieties across its senior hierarchy; and Olmert himself is being investigated on suspicion of intervening in the process for the privatization of Bank Leumi, a matter in which Zelekha is understood to have been a central witness. Zelekha has complained in the past that his campaign against corruption has prompted more than indignation and efforts to remove him. A report handed to Mazuz last year by his avowed partner in the anti-corruption campaign, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, contained the reported allegation by Zelekha that he had been warned, via a friend, that if he did not back away from one particular line of investigation, Omri Sharon and his father "are going to walk all over your head." Earlier this year, Zelekha complained to police about death threats, and his wife told a radio interviewer that she had received a phone message threatening to "take care of Yaron" and then "put an end to you and break your arms and legs." Until the alleged improprieties he has exposed are thoroughly investigated, and until the threats he claims to have endured are fully probed too, it is, of course, impossible to ascertain conclusively the extent to which Zelekha is an overzealous busybody interfering with the efficient functioning of government or a vital exemplar of propriety in a cesspool of sleaze. But there can be no ambiguity about the value of the reforms he has been striving to enforce. Ministries, the Treasury included, have had to reverse improper norms in a range of areas including the employment of political appointees, the false registration of nonexistent assets, the granting of tax-free payments and benefits to staff, and more. Zelekha has also been pressing for external scrutiny over the appointment of ministry directors-general; a significant increase in funding for the law enforcement agencies that tackle public sector corruption; the formulation of ethical guidelines for politicians to follow; and the granting of full independence for the various watchdogs within ministries - including their internal auditors and legal advisers - so that they can properly critique the hierarchy they are scrutinizing, rather than being beholden to it. The case for more effective, independent supervision of the finances of government is unarguable. The effort to oust the man who was spearheading such change is deeply troubling, and can only further undermine the already paltry confidence with which the public relates to its government.