The Israeli Democracy Institute’s Meandering: Opposed to Political Appointments but also in Favor

IDI president calls political appointments an “attack on governance” this week, but an old IDI publication actually celebrates them. What changed? The makeup of the government

An assault on Governance - IDI President Plesner (photo - Flash90)

(Translated from Hebrew)

Last Sunday, the cabinet decided to postpone a vote on a bill that would give ministers more latitude in making political appointments of senior staff in their ministries.  The bill would see the appointment, without tender, of a deputy director general in all government offices with at least 150 employees.

Supporters of the bill stress the necessity of increasing governing capabilities of elected officials and their ability to carry out the policies for which they were elected. Those who oppose the bill, who have called it “The Jobs Bill,” argue that it politicizes the civil service and will hurt its professionalism.

“Attack on Governance”

Rivers of ink have been spilled over the advantages and disadvantages of political appointments. Despite the nuanced debate that has transpired, the president of the Israeli Democracy Institute (IDI),  Yohanan Plesner has taken a firm and clear position on the matter. According to him, the bill is nothing less than an “attack on governance.”

Why did he go to such extremes? Because, according to Plesner,  the proposal will result in the loss of professional knowledge and experience accumulated over the years among the professional clerks of the civil service, something that will cause chaos in that service. Plesner finished his dark prophecy with a warning. “If we are judging based on the past, adopting the initiatives to increase the scope of political appointments will mostly just increase the negative presence of ministers in State Comptroller reports, journalistic investigations, the courts and possibly even prisons.”

Indeed, Plesner connects political appointments to corruption. In his long column he does not succeed in coming up with a single advantage or positive point that could be used to support political appointments. According to him, the bill would create chaos and certain damage to the civil service, its professionalism and the public’s trust.

This is not the first time the IDI has published a position on the matter of political appointments. In an article published by the IDI in 2011, under the title, “Political Appointments in Israel from a Comparative Point of View,” the concerns regarding political appointments are considered in detail. The writer, Shurik Dreispitch, quoted legal decisions and brought examples of the failure of the method from Tzachi Hanegbi’s and Ehud Olmert’s scandals.

The decisive negativity of Plesner is slightly moderated in Dreispitch’s article, who does find two advantages to the idea, namely, cultural diversity in the civil service and the increase of governance. However, immediately after he explains the advantage of increased governance, Dreispitch is quick to qualify the point with an argument that many political appointments are of relatives who are not actually qualified for the job, meaning that the appointment will not make it easier for a minister to achieve their policies.

The position of the Israeli Democracy Institute seems to be clear, political appointments are bad for democracy. However, a review of the writings of the Institute over a longer historical period reveals a lack of consistency.

During the ‘90s, the IDI released a pamphlet in cooperation with the Hakibbutz Hameuchad -Sifriat Poalim Publishing Group entitled “Political Appointments in Israel.” In this essay, written by David Deri, both prevailing attitudes towards political appointments in the civil service are explored; the state based approach, found in the British civil service and the party based approach of the American civil service.

It is surprising to reveal that the book passionately attacks those who oppose political appointments and who were trying to implement the British model in Israel (the state based). Deri accuses them of manipulation and of denigrating political appointments as a way to decrease the influence of the political echelons in the civil service. That is to say, according to the Israeli Democracy Institute of the ‘90s, the war against political appointments of the Institute of today is an attempt to give preference to specific political values in the guise of maintaining integrity.

At the end of the book, Deri warns against the use of the term “political appointments” as a derogatory term as then, every political appointment would be certainly understood as part and parcel of corruption and bribery. “From this expression, this dangerous equation may be implied: Political is unacceptable,” he explains.

The ‘90s as years of a struggle against public corruption

It seems that on the matter of political appointments the IDI has done a full u-turn. The rule of the civil service has turned from an ideological manipulation to a preferred reality. The rule of the elected has turned from sensible to an attack on governance. What caused the change?

Perhaps you could argue that public sensitivities have changed. It would make sense that in the past the public has had more patience for attacks on proper procedures and political appointments were a part of that. Today, when the general public recognizes the seriousness of the plight of corruption, the IDI has fallen in line and updated its position in accordance with the public’s mindset.

However, this cannot be the answer because the period during which Deri published his essay was characterized with rampant political corruption scandals upsetting the public’s faith in government. Starting from the “Dirty Trick,” then onto the Deri, Pinchasi and Goldfarb scandals and finishing with questionable political appointments such as when the Supreme Court cancelled member of the Likud Central Committee Morris Nisan’s appointment as the head of Amidar. Scandals such as these led to legislation that was meant to ensure the appropriateness of political appointments for the role to which they were appointed.

Today, however, it is difficult to say that corruption is found high up on the public agenda. In the 1990s, the entire system – the Knesset, the government, the court, the police and the State Prosecutor’s Office – came to fight corruption. Today, left-wing activists are protesting against the attorney general, demanding that he open an investigation into a case where he has not found criminal conduct.

Specifically today, at a time when corruption is less of a hot button issue, those at the IDI are coming to protect us against it. How can we explain the panic?

It depends on when you ask

The answer to the contradiction is seemingly found on the first page of Deri’s book. On the page there is no content except for technical details, the name of the book, the publisher, copyright detials and one more fact, the year of publishing. Deri’s book was first published in 1993, and an additional edition in 1999.

Historical memory creates a clear overlap between these years and the brief tenure of the only two leftist governments who have governed here in the last three decades, Rabin’s government from 1992-1995 and Barak’s between 1999 and 2001.

What can we conclude from this? Are political appointments the fulfillment of governance or attacks on governance? It depends on who you ask. And if you ask the Israeli Democracy Institute, it also depends on when you ask.

If, on one hand, you ask during the period of a leftist government, then political appointments are great and one should be careful to not denigrate the phenomenon.

If, on the other hand, the public has elected a right wing government, then it is worthwhile to limit the free hand given to elected officials. All, of course, in the name of the “professionalism” that the government civil servants carry with them.

Civil servants who, by the way, were political appointments from the period of left-wing governments.


Tzviya Zicherman is an attorney

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