Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frozen all personnel hiring at the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) after an attempt to place a confidant at the head of the organization failed, the Kan public broadcaster reported Monday.
The report said the move by Netanyahu was “highly irregular.” Opposition leader Yair Lapid on Tuesday accused the prime minister of trying to undermine the independence of the key government bureau because it produced facts that were uncomfortable for the government.
Last month Netanyahu reportedly sought to appoint Prime Minister’s Office Director General Yossi Sheli, who had been a Likud election campaign manager, as chief statistician, Kan reported, but backed away after the plan became public. Sheli has served in the past as Israeli ambassador to Brazil, also a political appointment by Netanyahu.
Kan said Netanyahu’s bid to appoint Sheli faced pushback from the Civil Service Commission, which said there were legal problems with the move.
The Kan report said that Netanyahu had now informed the bureau that all appointments across the organization were frozen until he finds somebody acceptable to him to head the body.
It said Netanyahu planned to deal with the issue in the next few months, indicating that the CBS could face a lengthy period of hiring paralysis.
The chief statistician has always been a professional appointee with the crucial job of supplying intelligence to decision-makers across a range of government and public sector bodies.
The CBS’s responsibilities include determining the country’s consumer price index, unemployment figures and growth rates — metrics, published quarterly, essential to measuring the success or failure of public policy. The bureau’s independence is key to its credibility.
The permanent position of chief statistician has been empty for over a year as the government has sought to update the requirements of the job, which in the past has always gone to a professor. Only four people have held the job since 1948.
There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu or the CBS on the report.
Critics say Netanyahu wants his own person in power at the CBS in order to help present more favorable data to shape public opinion, and that the move is part of the government’s efforts to politicize the civil service. They have also tied it to the government’s judicial overhaul that seeks to undermine the power of the courts.
“They want to control the facts,” Lapid told Kan on Tuesday. “They learned that they can sell any lie if they repeat it enough times. That’s why they built their poison [rhetoric] machine and now they want to transform it into the government poison machine.”
“Regimes of this type always make every effort in the world to block unpleasant information. Part of the resistance of a modern economy is that it is ready to face the facts even when they are unpleasant,” Lapid said.
“What dictatorial regimes do all over the world is produce fictitious facts — and the Central Bureau of Statistics is very much interfering with that, because it is not ready to claim that we are on the rise economically when we are actually in decline. So they want to control the facts,” he said.
Netanyahu’s government has pushed ahead with its plans to pass legislation that will sharply curtail the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on government power. The proposed changes have sparked massive protests, and dire warnings from business leaders, legal experts, academics and security officials that the reforms will undermine Israel’s democracy and harm its economy and security.