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The departure of top public servants and a move to up political appointments are a blow to good governance

The holidays not only offer a hiatus before the return to the regular, hectic, routine of Israeli life; they are also a period of intense activity in anticipation of challenges ahead. This has been especially true this year, as topics as diverse as the future of the Iran deal and subsidies for people with disabilities have accompanied (or marred) the festivities. The most important — but perhaps least noted — of these efforts have focused on changes in the composition of those who will be making decisions on critical issues in the coming months.

Fewer experienced lawmakers in elected office and more political appointees in key executive positions do not bode well for good governance. At stake are the policy-making capacities of the government writ-large: its professionalism, its efficiency, its willingness to weigh alternatives, its ability to act in the public interest.

Two leading members of the Knesset from the opposition Zionist Union, Professor Manuel Trachtenberg and Erel Margalit, resigned this past week. Each gave different explanations for his decision: Trachtenberg highlighted his frustration with his inability to make a real difference from the opposition backbenches and his disappointment with the workings of the house; Margalit, clearly smarting from his failed campaign to gain the leadership of the Labor party, underlined his desire to resume some of his former social and financial undertakings. They both concluded — perhaps correctly from their perspective — that they could have a greater impact on the quality of life in the country outside the Knesset than within what they consider its confines. They join a long list of former members of the Knesset who have abandoned elected office after realizing that their exceptional qualifications do not necessarily guarantee them greater influence in a parliamentary setting.

In fact, political office — especially in the Knesset — is as much a profession as any other. It requires a different skill-set than a professorship in the university, success in the private sector, or military expertise. This is the reason that so few who have made the shift from the upper echelons of academe, business, the IDF and even the rabbinate have lasted for long in the political world. Too many superciliously perceived of themselves as saviors who would instruct their less accomplished colleagues. Others simply saw their election as a stepping stone to ministerial positions and dropped out as soon as they realized that they would not be granted their wish. They rarely exhibited the patience needed to learn the intricacies of their new job and adjust accordingly (those who did stand out as some of the country’s most noted parliamentarians and leaders).

Members of the Knesset may not excel in carrying out concrete projects. But that is not what they are supposed to do. They are charged with designing laws — and hence normative guidelines — for the benefit of society. They hold the heavy responsibility for supervising government actions and ensuring that its machinery works equitably for all citizens (this is especially true for members of the opposition, who have the obligation to simultaneously criticize existing policies and suggest workable alternatives). And they are selected as representatives of certain positions, worldviews and, yes, interests. Their work is judged not by their intentions but by its results. That is why they are, above all else, emissaries of their electorate and are consequently accountable to their particular constituencies. They must report to them and listen to their concerns: they do — even in Israel’s proportional representation system — serve at their discretion.

Leaving an elected position in mid-term is an act of abandonment of those voters who rallied in support of specific individuals, put their trust in their capabilities and depended on their actions. Although not always easy — and definitely hardly enjoyable in recent times — those who sought political office should do everything possible to serve out their terms. Their departure often deprives the Knesset of some of the best minds in the house. It definitely leaves the daily tasks of parliamentary life to politicians who — without term-limits — have been in office seemingly forever and are adept at surviving without visibly improving their surroundings. Consequently, the Knesset, which reconvenes after a long break two weeks from today, will undoubtedly be further enfeebled.

At the same time, the present coalition is bent on increasing its control over the bureaucracy. In stark contrast to elected officials, who do not have to possess any formal qualifications besides citizenship and a minimum age, civil servants must fulfill professional requirements for appointment and promotion. In recent years, exceptional efforts have been made to woo the most talented graduates to Israel’s civil service, which has been blessed with some of the best managerial and technical minds in the country. But the attrition rate is growing constantly, mostly due to underutilization and constricted avenues for advancement (the dismantlement of the professional diplomatic corps is just one example of this regressive process).

The number of political appointees, to date, has been limited, confined mostly to positions of confidence such as directors-general of government ministries and the personal staffs of ministers and deputy-ministers. But the government is bent on substantially expanding these numbers. Just last week, it decided to delay a controversial proposal put forth by Ayelet Shaked and Yariv Levin to allow ministers to appoint associate directors-general at their discretion — mainly because the prime minister requested a more sweeping program for political appointments. Defraying the final decision by a few weeks will not change the outcome: come next month growing swaths of the upper echelons of the administration will be thoroughly politicized. Its level of professionalism and effectiveness will suffer accordingly and the incentive of skilled veterans to remain in government service will further decline.

The disdain evinced for experts by those at the helm of the government has been pressed home by the failure to appoint a new civil service commissioner to replace Moshe Dayan, who completed his term in May. This is the most senior administrative position in the government, responsible for formulating and implementing directives for hiring and promoting tens of thousands of employees in government institutions. Apparently, the one name put forward for this job — Ofra Bracha, an obscure middle level functionary in the Ministry of Interior — has been withdrawn due to insufficient support.

The inability (or is it unwillingness?) to identify an appropriate candidate not only prolongs administrative uncertainty, it directly contributes to the centralization of power in the hands of senior politicians. They will now be able, with much fewer constraints from a belittled bureaucracy and a beleaguered legislature, to pursue their policies without professional restraints or proper oversight from within the official establishment (with the exception of the constantly hounded judiciary). More than ever before, these tasks will become the almost exclusive purview of the media and non-governmental organizations — which have themselves been systematically subjected to relentless governmental assaults in recent months. In the meantime, decisions will be made by the prime minister and his close entourage without the benefit of the accumulated knowledge of those trained to supply it without prejudice to whoever is in office at any given time.

In real terms, this situation means that the government will determine vital policies related to the economy, social services, education and security without either professional consultation or sufficient consideration of the opinions of those charged directly with overseeing these areas. Its steps will be less curtailed by members of the Knesset because their expert ranks have been depleted. In these circumstances, Israel’s public interests will remain hostage to the powerful few, its democracy will deteriorate further and its social solidarity will continue to unravel.

All this can yet be avoided if elected officials fulfill their mission as representatives of the country’s diverse citizenry and if administrators be allowed to carry out their tasks without constant interference. This is the essence of the separation of powers which provides necessary checks and balances and ensures the smooth functioning of the complex machinery of government. For good governance to thrive, the best and the brightest should be the first to enter public service and to remain in their — elected or appointed — positions for the duration of their terms. Should they choose to exit or stand on the sidelines, they will bear part of the responsibility for the consequences. For without them, no governmental consistency, progress or innovation can take place.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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