An oft-repeated criticism of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his last few years in office was that he was trampling over the gatekeepers of this country’s democracy.
Defined broadly, these gatekeepers are the heads of the civil service, security establishment and judiciary – as well as the media – whose role is to act as a check on politicians and other powerful forces whose political and personal interests may lead to actions inimical to the public well being.
In this telling, and there was more than just a grain of truth in it, these gatekeepers stood in the way of advancing Netanyahu’s personal, political and ideological agenda, and as a result, he sought to clip their wings and delegitimize them in the eyes of the public. More than once, Netanyahu and his style of rhetoric and leadership were defined as a threat to Israel’s democracy.
So potent was this “threat” that last June, the leaders of eight diverse parties with conflicting ideologies and competing worldviews banded together to form a coalition and “save” Israel from this undemocratic drift.
This “change government,” as it called itself, would change the unhealthy culture of governance that seeped into Netanyahu’s administrations.
The ministers of this government pledged that with them in charge, the “gatekeepers’’ were safe. No longer would ministers ignore the recommendations of the professional civil service, attack the attorney-general, disparage the police commissioner or malign the judiciary. A new democratic day had dawned.
At least that is what the nation was told.
It is with dismay, therefore, that we learned on Sunday that cabinet ministers opted to simply ignore the recommendations of the Senior Appointments Advisory Committee and appoint Amir Peretz as chairman of the Israel Aerospace Industries board. The role of this appointments advisory committee is to ensure that plum positions in the public sector are parceled out based on merit and not on political connections.
Our dismay has nothing to do with Peretz, a man who served variously as defense minister, trade minister, Labor Party chairman, head of the Histadrut labor federation and mayor of Sderot. Rather, it has to do with the way the ministers – except for Labor head Meirav Michaeli and Meretz ministers Nitzan Horowitz and Tamar Zandberg, who abstained – brushed aside the recommendations of the appointment committee as if it simply did not exist.
Completely ignoring the committee’s recommendations is many things – unabashed arrogance, ministerial prerogative – but one thing it is not: good governance. Good governance does not mean completely disregarding the recommendations of the professional staff set up to do what its name implies: provide recommendations regarding appointments.
One could legitimately argue with some of the reasons given by the committee for disqualifying Peretz. One reason was that he does not have the business background or acumen to run a company whose annual turnover currently stands at some $4 billion. The other is that he was too close to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who nominated him for the new job.
But once the committee makes a recommendation, it should be respected. Otherwise, why set up the committee in the first place?
If the ministers are going to appoint whomever they want no matter what, then why go through the charade of an appointments advisory committee in the first place? And now that the cabinet disregarded the committee’s opinion on this appointment, future governments will have a precedent upon which to rely if they want to do the same thing.
What makes this even more problematic is the realization that if the tables were turned – if it was Netanyahu who was still in power and disregarded the recommendations of the professional echelon to push through a political appointment, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was in the opposition – Lapid would be leading a loud chorus of voices slamming Netanyahu for poor governance and disregarding the gatekeepers.
After riding into power on the ticket of changing the way things are done and respecting the democratic process, this government needs to practice what its ministers preached while in the opposition. Otherwise, a credibility gap that is bound to have significant political repercussions in the future, will be created.