Israel is a tough place. Not only is there occasional violence on the borders and within the country, but the public sector is an arena of intense competition. Sometimes it gets ugly.
Currently there is a battle between two of the country's major institutions. It may not yet be the stuff of page one New York Times, but it is a key item in the local media and can affect the political landscape for years to come.
The players are the Prime Minister and the State Comptroller. The latter is the state auditor, equivalent of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the United States, with responsibility for reporting about government effectiveness, efficiency, and moral integrity.
The State Comptroller opened the conflict, with investigations into activities of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dealing with real estate transactions, political appointments, and the manipulation of bidding with respect to the sale of a major bank. The State Comptroller has indicated that findings give rise to suspicions about violations of criminal law, and has requested further investigations by the Attorney General.
This could produce the resignation of the prime minister, and even some punishment. The prime minister and his supporters have responded with claims of inacurracy in the State Comptroller's details, the essential legality of Olmert's behavior, or the triviality of what the State Comptroller was claiming.
Now there is a more severe counter-attack. The member of the State Comptroller's Office with principal responsibility for investigating political corruption is Yaacov Borovsky, formerly a ranking officer of the Israel Police. On prime time television news, a member of the Likud Central Committee reported that he met with Borovsky and another senior police officer two years ago, and was asked to promote Borovsky's candidacy for being appointed police chief with Omri Sharon, Member of Knesset, son, and major advisor of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
There may be nothing wrong with asking for help with a candidacy for promotion within a government bureaucracy. But the Likud activist claimed that Borovsky's colleague--in Borovsky's presence--indicated that the desired promotion would help settle amicably the criminal investigation then underway against Omri Sharon, his brother, and his father.
If this is true, then the State Comptroller's principal investigator of corruption is himself guilty of corruption. The campaign against the prime minister, as well as the entire reputation of the State Comptroller and his institution can drop into the tank of public shame and ridicule.
At this point we do not know how the battle will end. Members of Likud (and Labor) Party Central Committees include the foot soldiers of Israeli politics. "Foot soldiers" should be read not as the heroic stuff of the IDF, but as Mafia operatives who do the dirty work. We should not be surprised to learn that this foot soldier exaggerated, embroidered, or invented some or all of what he reported about his meeting with Yaacov Borovsky. In a country where the president may be indicted for several counts of rape, we should not be surprised about anything.
Ehud Olmert spent most of his political career as a member of Likud. The man who reported about a meeting with Borovsky may view himself as one of Olmert's foot soldiers.
I must admit to a personal stake in this. I have published articles on the activities of the State Comptroller, and have served on some of its committees. When Borovsky was appointed to his position, he and another senior member of the State Comptroller's Office visited with me in order to discuss the interface between state audit and conceptions of political corruption. I am seriously impressed with his knowledge and intellectual prowess.
I have also been impressed with the prime minister's political skills. He is a manipulator who sails close to the line, and may cross the border between the permitted and prohibited. Along with unfriendly inquiries by the State Comptroller, Olmert is facing persistent criticism about his conduct of the recent war in Lebanon. Alas, managing a country like Israel is not like running a small church or academic seminar.
The story about the Prime Minister and the State Comptroller may yet join the stories about our president on page one of the New York Times.