THINK ABOUT IT: On senior civil servants and governability

In a well ordered regime, the public gives you the power to rule, for better or worse.

The Knesset plenum  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Knesset plenum
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
At the government meeting on Sunday last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “I wish to cancel the search committees [for senior positions in the civil service]... We were elected to govern, and part of governability is the selection of people... If ministers cannot appoint – they shouldn’t be ministers. If they err in their choice of people, they will pay for it in the elections...
In a well ordered regime, the public gives you the power to rule, for better or worse. We must bear responsibility for appointments... There is no legal question involved, but only the question of governability.”
To the layman these words might make sense. However, anyone who knows anything about Israel’s system of election and government formation, its governability problems and the history of the search committees cannot but view Netanyahu’s statement as being not only shaky on factual grounds, but also highly manipulative.
The search committees were introduced following Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister (1996-99), inter alia in order to prevent the recurrence of a highly problematic decision by Netanyahu himself in January 1997 to appoint Ronny Bar-On – at the time a private lawyer of no particular legal distinction – as attorney general. This appointment had been coordinated with Shas leader Arye Deri, who was on trial at the time on corruption charges and was interested in a new attorney general, one who would adopt a partial approach in his case. Though Deri himself was not a member of the government, his party was, and Netanyahu required its support (Shas had 10 Knesset seats at the time) for an agreement he had just signed with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over Hebron. Bar-On resigned several days after being appointed, following the story hitting the headlines.
In short, the background to the search committees’ creation was directly linked to problems of integrity in civil service appointments – which in this particular case actually bordered on the criminal – and which contrary to Netanyahu’s statement is a legal issue par excellence.
Incidentally, originally the search committees examined qualified candidates for various senior positions, and then proposed one from the list to the minister concerned for his approval. However, during the term of Netanyahu’s second government (2009-2013), upon the recommendation of justice minister Yaakov Neeman, the practice was changed, and the committees were asked to recommend three candidates from a list presented to them, from among whom the minister was to choose one. In the case of the most recent selection of a new attorney general, the committee proposed only one candidate – Avichai Mandelblit – who happened to be Netanyahu’s favorite candidate.
Now, no one is saying that the manner in which the search committees operate is ideal. Certainly the fact that in the case of the recent selection of an attorney general the committee was unable to reach an agreement over three candidates, even though it had before it a list of highly qualified and commendable candidates, suggests that there is a problem in the process. However, what does all this have to do with governability? No doubt Israel has a governability problem resulting from the large number of political lists that manage to get into the Knesset, and the fact that they not only vary greatly ideologically, but represent different perceptions of the desired shape and essence of the State of Israel.
In the more distant past the problem was somewhat mitigated by the fact that the major parties were much larger than they are today (in the Labor Alignment’s first major electoral defeat in 1977, it nevertheless received 32 Knesset seats, compared to the Likud’s 43), and therefore whichever of them was able to form a government was able to tame the smaller coalition partners more easily than they can today.
Netanyahu stated in last week’s government meeting that “we were elected to govern.” The fact is that in the most recent elections the Likud received 30 Knesset seats, which meant that given the remainder of the election results only the Likud was in a position to form a coalition.
What sort of coalition this would be was completely up to Netanyahu, who had several options – none of them ideal from his point of view, but some more manageable (i.e.
enabling greater governability) than others.
We do not know all his considerations for choosing a right-wing religious coalition, in which even if Yisrael Beytenu had joined the power to bring down the government would still have been left in the hands of Kulanu – a party that is neither religious nor really right-wing.
Netanyahu chose a coalition supported by 61 MKs, even though he could have opted for a right-of-center government including the haredi parties but without Bayit Yehudi, with a much larger Knesset majority.
Whether his decision was based on purely ideological considerations or on considerations related to his own political survival, it was his choice. One thing is certain – his governability problems, resulting from the make-up of the government he chose to form, and his own occasionally problematic modus operandi, have nothing whatsoever to do with appointments of senior civil servants.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett is not fighting against Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon because of the appointment of senior civil servants. The shortage of poultry and fresh vegetables during the High Holidays had nothing whatsoever to do with the appointment of senior civil servants. The fact that so far the price of housing just keeps going up has nothing to do with the appointment of senior civil servants. Even the fact that Netanyahu is having difficulty implementing his natural gas outline has nothing to do with senior civil servants, since he managed to neutralize all the gate-keepers who stood in his way.
So why the obsession with the appointment of senior civil servants? The best answer to this question can be found in a true story related to former Likud MK and minister Limor Livnat, who back in 1997, during a debate in the Likud Conference about a proposal to cancel the Likud primaries and return the power of selecting the Likud’s Knesset list to the Central Committee (she opposed the cancellation of the primaries), asked the rhetorical question “were we elected in order to distribute jobs?” To which the audience replied with a categorical: “yes.”
It is no secret that Netanyahu’s relations with the Likud institutions are problematic. On the one hand, there is full appreciation in the Likud that the last electoral victory was due almost entirely to Netanyahu himself, and at the moment there is no one in the Likud threatening his leadership (Netanyahu, like Shimon Peres in the Labor Party back in the 1980s, simply doesn’t enable anyone who poses a threat to his leadership to grow around him).
However, when it comes to internal elections in the Likud institutions Netanyahu seems to be in trouble, and has difficulty getting his henchmen elected. Two of his main rivals these days are the two Katzes – Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Welfare and Social Services Minister Haim Katz – and they are among those pressing to return to the system of political appointments in the civil service, for their own political benefit.
As to Netanyahu’s claim that “if they err in their choice of the people, they will pay for it in the elections” – that is a totally false statement. The whole point of political appointments in Israel is to gain the support of the appointees in the primaries for the selection of candidates for the party’s election list. Whether the appointments are any good is totally irrelevant. Netanyahu must certainly know this, so who is he kidding? The writer is a political scientist and retired Knesset employee.