Losing bite, friendlier state watchdog is accused of being Netanyahu’s poodle

New ombudsman under fire as he mulls axing anti-corruption unit, peppering audits with compliments, refraining from real-time criticism; this after shaking up key oversight panel

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Matanyahu Englman (R) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem shortly after being nominated for state comptroller on June 3, 2019. (PMO/Twitter)
Matanyahu Englman (R) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem shortly after being nominated for state comptroller on June 3, 2019. (PMO/Twitter)

Two months into his tenure as state comptroller, Matanyahu Englman has not wasted any time in launching a widespread reform of his new office.

The state ombudsman regularly issues thick reports bristling with accusations of government wrongdoing, corruption and failures to serve the public, and also fines officials and helps launch criminal probes. But under Englman, the watchdog will forgo some of its teeth in favor of a less confrontational approach.

Englman’s agenda, whose details were leaked to the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily earlier this month, includes shuttering the office’s anti-corruption unit, ceasing the evaluation of ministries in real-time, requiring all audits to include positive feedback, and shaking up the Permits Committee tasked with preventing conflicts of interests by government officials.

While officials in the ombudsman’s office have defended the reforms, saying that Englman is seeking to streamline the auditing process and improve relationships with the ministries he is tasked with evaluating, critics argue that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pick for the post is more concerned with pleasing his boss by neutering a key gate-keeping body meant to keep him in check.

“If the Messiah were to arrive and announce that there is no longer corruption in the State of Israel, then I’d say let’s consider closing the [anti-corruption] branch. But we’re not in such a situation,” said Eliad Shraga, head of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel.

“We’re in a situation where corruption is on the rise and instead of expanding the branch from 25 to 250, he’s closing it entirely.”

Matanyahu Englman at a press conference at the Knesset after his nomination to be the next state comptroller on June 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Political vs. demographic diversity

Englman, an accountant by training and former education executive who ran the prestigious Technion Institute of Technology and the state’s top university regulator, the Council for Higher Education, was sworn in to the job on July 1. He is the first comptroller in three decades who is not a former judge.

An official in the State Comptroller’s Office told The Times of Israel on Sunday that the new ombudsman is still familiarizing himself with the position and that most of the aforementioned reforms are still being mulled.

However, changes pertaining to the Permits Committee have already been actualized.

Last week, Englman announced an entirely new makeup of the oversight panel, which has refused — on three occasions over the past year — to allow Netanyahu to accept donations from tycoon allies for the purpose of funding his legal defense.

Channel 13 reported that the new ombudsman had butted heads with the outgoing judges, accusing them during a meeting last month of having “overstepped” when they ordered Netanyahu to return some $300,000 given to him by his cousin, US businessman Nathan Milikowsky, in order to finance his legal team.

Less than a month after that report, three members of the committee handed in their resignations in a largely symbolic act, given that they had already been notified by Englman that their tenures would not be renewed.

But the new ombudsman jumped on the opportunity to launch the first stage of his agenda, expanding the panel from four members to eight and diversifying its makeup to include, for the first time, non-judges as well as Ethiopian-Israeli and ultra-Orthodox representatives.

“Today we took the first step on the road to implementing reform that promotes constructive and quality auditing,” said Englman in a statement announcing the move. “The strengthening of the composition of the Permits Committee will allow for the integration of experts from various fields (law, economics and public administration) alongside a broadening of the range of opinions and the opening of the committee to different segments of society.”

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira (R) hands the latest State Comptroller’s report to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on May 24, 2016. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

But while Englman boasted of the diverse demographics of the panel, Channel 12 revealed that the political affiliations of the new members were anything but. Four of the new representatives have ties to the Likud party, two of whom have publicly expressed support for Netanyahu in light of his criminal investigations.

The report led former prime minister and current Democratic Camp candidate Ehud Barak to brand Englman a “wretched servant of Netanyahu” and a “rag” in an Army Radio interview last week.

“This is a disgrace to the institution of the State Comptroller. People were appointed to the Permits Committee who themselves are in conflicts of interest,” Barak added, referencing the panel’s raison d’etre.

On Monday, one of those four Likud-affiliated nominees, Sara Frish, notified Englman that she was no longer interested in the position.

Streamlining bureaucracy or ignoring misconduct?

Perhaps more significant than the the Permits Committee shakeup would be the shuttering of the office’s anti-corruption wing established by former comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss nearly 15 years ago.

The department of roughly 25 employees went on to be responsible for uncovering the misconduct that led to convictions against former prime minister Ehud Olmert and the current prime minister’s wife Sara Netanyahu.

While all departments within the comptroller’s office by definition look into government misconduct, the anti-corruption wing is specifically mandated to look into suspicions of corruption and can pass along recommendations to the attorney general to open criminal investigations if deemed necessary.

Defending the plan to close the branch, a senior official in Englman’s office said the unit “had damaged the office’s audit work and caused government ministries to ignore their recommendations and refuse to cooperate with the auditors.”

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss hands his annual report to Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on Tuesday. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss (L) hands his annual report to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin on June 2, 2012. (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

The senior official claimed there was no need for a separate branch within the State Comptroller’s Office dedicated to probing corruption when the police are already tasked with investigating such matters. He said the unit’s members “found themselves busy all day dealing with gossip instead of doing serious audit work” and added that they drew precious resources away from other departments.

(One former comptroller official who ended his tenure in the office last month told The Times of Israel that Englman himself had been Israel Hayom’s source for its article on his office’s planned reforms. The ex-official explained that the new ombudsman is seeking to detail his intentions to the public in preparation for the roll-out of his full agenda.)

Citing the anti-corruption branches successes in its short history, Movement for Quality Government in Israel head Shraga flatly rejected the arguments made in support of its closure.

“This isn’t an issue of streamlining. When you cast five rods into the ocean, it’s more likely that you’ll catch a big fish than if you cast just one rod,” Shraga said in an interview last week in which he defended having a non-police body tasked with looking into corruption.

He pointed out that while police can only enter a government office to investigate corruption when they have specific intelligence or when a complaint has been filed, ombudsman employees are in contact with the various ministries on a daily basis, placing them in a far better position to identify corruption if it exists.

Attorney Eliad Shraga of the Movement for Quality Government, outside a courtroom at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, October 5, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

And he noted that if anything, corruption in Israel is getting worse and needs more resources, not fewer.

Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Index ranks Israel as the 34th least corrupt country out of 180 other nations. The standing is two spots worse than last year’s and places the Jewish state behind Middle East neighbors Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

In addition to Netanyahu, who is facing indictments on bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending an October hearing, two other cabinet ministers also face possible criminal charges: Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri. Likud MK Haim Katz resigned from his post as welfare minister last week after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he plans to indict him on fraud and breach of trust charges. Katz’s fellow faction member David Bitan is also being investigated on possible bribery charges.

Ex-post facto compliments

The “senior official” quoted by Israel Hayom said that Englman also plans on enforcing a clause of the comptroller’s mandate requiring audits to include praise of the offices being inspected.

“The last comptrollers only wrote criticisms, and each section [of their reports] ended with negative comments, but the statute explicitly states that the auditor must also provide examples of previous recommendations that were successfully implemented,” the official said.

Shraga was less than impressed by the new comptroller’s plan. “Really? You want to hand out compliments because people are doing the basic level of what is expected of them?” the Movement for Quality Government in Israel chairman cracked.

He went on to lambaste as “absurd” Englman’s reported plan to cease carrying out audits in real time.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in December 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Englman appeared to express support for the idea in May when he was still a candidate for the post of state ombudsman, telling Israel Hayom “the comptroller should focus on auditing and leave management to the state.”

The “senior official” who briefed the daily a month later further detailed the point, arguing that proper auditing can only begin after the fact.

Hebrew University Political Science professor Gayil Talshir explained that Englman’s appointment and the reforms he has sought to enact could be better understood in the broader context of the attitude successive Netanyahu governments have taken toward the role of Israel’s gatekeepers.

“The accusation against the Netanyahu governments is that they have systematically sought to weaken the audits of bodies that are essential in checking their power,” Talshir said, referencing efforts to pass legislation allowing the Knesset to override vetoes to their laws made by the High Court of Justice along with efforts to allow ministers to handpick their own legal advisers.

“The argument is that Netanyahu has sought to appoint confidants to positions of power so the auditing done will be less critical,” the political science professor continued, citing ex-Netanyahu government minister Daniel Hershkowitz’s appointment to serve as Civil Service Commissioner.

For their part, Netanyahu and his allies have argued that their interest is in ensuring that the views of the majority that voted them into power are upheld, but Talshir said that the test of a liberal democracy is its ability to defend the rights of the minority as well while maintaining checks on government power.

One individual who has expressed appreciation for Englman’s approach is the prime minister himself. Netanyahu called the new comptroller’s position on retrospective auditing “a wonderful thing.”

“The one that decides in real time is the government. Subsequently, the comptroller can audit,” the premier told Channel 12 in June shortly after the Knesset affirmed his nominee.

“Can a commander lead an army when he has to worry in real time about what the critic will say? Do you think Jeff Bezos could work that way? Could Amazon or Google work that way?” he said, articulating an argument similar to ones his supporters have made against prosecuting a sitting prime minister.

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