The will of the people

If anything positive emerged from last week's budget turmoil, it was that Netanyahu circumvented the Treasury's politicized bureaucracy.

netanyahu what 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu what 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
If anything positive emerged from last week's budget turmoil, it was that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu circumvented the Treasury's politicized bureaucracy. Political appointees at the Finance Ministry have long been accustomed to riding roughshod over finance ministers, some of whose plans they overtly foiled and others they dictated. Not, ultimately, this time. In other political systems it's natural for a new administration to replace top-level managers. The idea is to enable a government to rely on personnel who identify with its views and strive to put its programs into effect. In such a political system, Budget Director Ram Belinkov would have tendered his resignation immediately upon the appointment of a new finance minister. Belinkov, after all, was the trusted appointee of previous Kadima finance minister Ronni Bar-On, no political friend of Netanyahu's. To make matters worse, Belinkov and Netanyahu's adviser Ori Yogev are themselves long-time adversaries who hadn't even been on speaking terms of late. A collision was unavoidable. In an ideal world, the executive branch headed by the elected premier sets economic policy, while professional employees at the Finance Ministry handle the technical details of implementation. The rules of the game oblige these staffers to keep their opinions to themselves and not tamper with executive decision-making. In this case, the government assigned Finance Ministry staffers the task of preparing a list of possible cost-cutting and revenue enhancing measures. But they proposed draconian and outlandish edicts, most of which were obvious non-starters. Yet when these proposals were inevitably discarded, these same political appointees in the bureaucracy went on the warpath. Through calculated leaks to the media, they positioned themselves as an opposition to the elected government. THE CLIMAX came when Belinkov was videotaped hobnobbing with the attorney-general and castigating someone whom journalists took to be Netanyahu (regardless of Belinkov's denials). Though Belinkov had reportedly tendered his resignation earlier that day, he was still on the government payroll when he lambasted it. Arguments that his resignation was a gesture of protest ring hollow precisely because of Belinkov's violations of political and administrative propriety during the entire tortuous budget-formulation process. Indeed, if Belinkov hadn't resigned, Netanyahu should have dismissed him. The episode calls to mind a similar mutiny under Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert. Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, gave Ma'ariv an interview in which he lambasted Olmert's decision to link opening Gaza's crossings to Gilad Schalit's fate. Olmert contended that Gilad was running his own Egyptian sideshow and seeking to drag the government into a cease-fire deal against its will. The upshot was that Gilad was sacked as lead negotiator with Egypt and reinstated only following a public apology. In that episode, Olmert fittingly upheld necessary hierarchical authority, which in Israel is all too often cast aside. In both imbroglios, ministry officials and political appointees sought to overstep their professional and nonpartisan roles. More than anybody, Belinkov knows the budget is foremost a political document which reflects the priorities of the parties elected to run our national affairs. Voters can replace politicians who disappoint them. They can support parties committed to changing the system. But the public's representatives must not be overruled by unelected political appointees ensconced in the bureaucracy. Belinkov was free to voice his displeasure to his superiors, but not to act against them. His job wasn't to provide budget oversight. It was to aid the government in putting together the budget according to its guidelines. That's not to say that regulatory supervision is unnecessary. Indeed, any genuine reform of the political system would result in the creation of mechanisms for bipartisan budget management. For now, the Bank of Israel and its governor in his capacity as economic adviser to the government provide some oversight. Likewise the Knesset Finance Committee's brief calls for keeping a critical eye on the budget. The Belinkov saga both complicates his successor's task and underlines its importance: The next budget director's imperative will be to rehabilitate his division's image and reestablish a proper framework of relations between it and the government it serves.