If Israel's Politicians Shape up, the Bureaucracy Will Fall in Line

When push comes to shove, the politicians always win.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a school in Jerusalem ahead of the opening of the school year, August 25, 2020. Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a school in Jerusalem ahead of the opening of the school year, August 25, 2020. Marc Israel Sellem/POOL.

Last Word
Oct. 1 2020
About the author

Haviv Rettig Gur is the senior analyst for the Times of Israel.

There are a great many fascinating insights contained in the responses to my essay on Israel’s civil service. Some differences between the respondents are the inevitable result of different perspectives and experiences. To Reuven Frankenburg’s argument that what looks like cunning fiscal machinations on the treasury’s part actually amounts to rank incompetence, I can only plead the old adage of Yehuda Amichai: from afar everything looks like a miracle, but from up close even a miracle doesn’t.

The responses are broad and deep, shedding new perspectives from deep within the Israeli treasury and from far across the Atlantic. But they all gravitate to a single theme, a theme I wholeheartedly agree with. For reasons of brevity, I will focus on this theme rather than the multitude of points raised, most of which I agree with in any case.

The Israeli treasury is an exceptionally powerful institution, whether we deem it competent or feckless. Frankenburg acknowledges the point when he complains that “major ‘decisions’ are still in the hands of economists with little understanding of the subject about which they are deciding.”

But there’s a deeper point in the complaint, one shared by all respondents. I argued that the “treasury youth” are powerful, and that their power and their elevation of fiscal discipline to the realm of civic religion are rooted in the traumas of Israel’s past that undermined trust in the country’s political class. The responses all featured one version or another of the retort that no number of responsible accounting practices can substitute for policy expertise and leadership vision—bureaucrats, even talented and devoted ones, cannot replace parliaments and elected politicians.

Government bean-counters not only should not make high-level policy, because they’re unelected, but also simply cannot do so, at least not well, because they lack the topical expertise. Understanding how to budget for a transportation network isn’t the same as understanding how to plan and build one. And there is a still higher layer of decision-making: making and balancing overarching moral and cultural choices that implicate the broader character of a society. America after the World War II had a choice to make: should it build a vast network of highways for private vehicles to traverse that continent-spanning country, or should it invest instead in European-style trains and public transportation grids? The Eisenhower administration embarked on the federal highway system for reasons that go beyond narrow economic models or metrics of efficiency. America’s culture of individualism and ideal of family life favored the private car.

In a well-ordered state, all three of these layers demand their own kind of expertise, and it’s no accident that the biggest policy questions are given to the elected class.

Yechiel Leiter’s response effectively showed when key moments of political decision-making delivered profound and long-term benefits to the country, sometimes despite the resistance of treasury officials. Evelyn Gordon convincingly argued that the bureaucrat, even the most devoted and talented, was not a reliable solution to political fecklessness. In the end, like it or not, there’s no escaping the need for the politician to lead the way, and no real means for the bureaucrat to rule while democracy remains intact.

It’s worth noting in this regard—and in support of the general thrust of all the respondents—that the treasury youths’ power was given to them by politicians as part of the reforms that ended the economic crisis of the 1980s. Frankenburg is right to note the department and its economic vision pre-existed that crisis, but its immense power and the mechanisms of control it has wielded since then are a function of that time, and of the political echelon’s search for a better way to handle the nation’s fiscal wellbeing.

Leiter is likewise right to note that the very policies that pulled the country out of that inflationary nosedive could not have been implemented without a political union of left and right that brought key stakeholders to support the stabilization plan. That is, politicians created the treasury’s power, and politicians, not bureaucrats, engineered the rescue of the Israeli economy from the very troubles that mark the origin story of today’s powerful civil servants.


All these insights build to a specific and, I think, correct criticism of my argument: that it didn’t expand beyond the question of the bureaucracy to the problems that afflict Israel’s political class.

I do indeed, as Leiter complained, “cheer” the fact that the treasury youth have been there when we’ve needed them, but I lament the fact that we’ve needed them quite so much over the years—that, as Gordon and others noted, Israel is so bad at producing responsible politicians, even in times of dire emergency. The treasury youth can never replace the political class, but they are the finger in the dike of economic folly.

I share the view of all the respondents that bureaucrats are not always wiser than politicians. Christopher DeMuth’s recalling of the way certain reforms intended to expand access to homeownership set the global economy wobbling is a case in point; Gordon’s note on Siegal Sadetzky’s errors of judgment is another example. Bureaucrats are indeed at their best not when they are shaping policy and imposing their innovations on society but when they are reining in and fact-checking and number-crunching the political echelon’s attempts to do the same.

But my argument wasn’t quite that Israel’s bureaucracy could replace our legislature, only that it had grown extraordinarily powerful on the perception that our political class had failed us.

I submit now an addendum to that argument that addresses the critique in the responses (and to a large extent agrees with the critique). It is this: our political class continues to fail us, and the primary example of that is the over-powerful bureaucracy.

The Israeli right has a longstanding gripe that powerful bureaucrats prevent meaningful action by elected officials. I believe, from closely observing both bureaucrat and politician for the better part of the past fifteen years, that this complaint is mostly a rhetorical construct, a politically convenient pretense to victimhood. Bureaucrats remain powerful only where politicians allow themselves to be timid, lazy, and incompetent.

As Gordon pointed out in her characteristically blunt and convincing way, when push comes to shove, the politicians always win.

One example will suffice here. When the Likud lawmaker Israel Katz was first appointed transportation minister in 2009, he wasn’t sure he’d last very long in the post, since the previous ten years had seen eight different people in the position. But he was committed to leaving his mark on the office. He believed in the power of a robust rail network to connect Israel’s periphery to its commercial hubs, to shrink gaps between metropolises and outlying towns, to create, as he put it, a “single, connected, strong, and equal country” by linking all the places where people lived—even out-of-the-way people who didn’t make the cut in the treasury’s investment models—to the big cities.

He believed in this vision, and believed the skeptical bean-counters were wrong, no matter how clever their models. He was right. Wherever the trains have gone, they’ve filled up almost immediately. “The Valley Line [through the Jezreel Valley], which the experts said no one would use, saw 350,000 passengers in its first three months of operation,” he once boasted at the inauguration of a new station in 2017.

But to push his vision forward, especially in his first years in the post, Katz was forced to find clever ways to sidestep and overrule the bureaucrats. When it came time to plan a new rail line to the Galilee town of Karmiel, a former development town of 40,000 on the Acre-Safed road, he ordered that the line be constructed not by the traditional means of laying down one kilometer of track after another and progressing slowly from a Haifa-area terminal to the final station in Karmiel, but by putting together all the sections of track simultaneously across the entire length of the line.

Why? The line cost nearly three billion shekels, mainly because it required carving two long tunnels through the hilly Galilee terrain. Some in the bureaucracy doubted the value of spending so much to connect an out-of-the-way town with relatively paltry commercial prospects to the national rail network. If Katz was ousted from his post in one of the perennial cabinet reshuffles that plague Israeli politics, he didn’t want treasury officials to cancel the project before it was completed. So he ordered a method of construction that would turn premature cancellation into an unjustifiably expensive waste of public funds.

It is no accident that it was Finance Minister Israel Katz who drove Budgets Department chief Shaul Meridor to resign in anger last month. Wherever Katz goes, the bureaucracy follows.

The same is true of the giants of Israeli history: Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, and countless others. It is equally true of newbie ministers now proving their chops in the current government, such as Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, who have shown in specific decisions that an assertive and responsible and competent minister can lead the bureaucracy, and not the other way around.


I suspect Israel will have a powerful bureaucracy for a long time to come, in part because I have come to believe its institutional culture is an outgrowth of a broader Israeli Jewish culture. The Jewish state has the highest percentage of lawyers per capita in the world, and also perhaps the most powerful judiciary in the democratic West. Is it unreasonable to suggest there’s a link between those two facts, and the link is deep-seated and rooted in old habits of culture and tradition? Might a society’s lionizing of legal institutions not have something to do with a legalistic religious tradition? Is it too flippant to suggest that the institution of the Israeli judge, both in its public standing and, crucially, in its aggrandized sense of self, reflects the institution of the rabbi in our Middle Eastern and East European forebears? And, ironically, that the right’s visceral dislike for these judges might not be channeling something of the old Jewish secularism once concentrated on the cultural left?

Israel’s powerful state apparatus is also propped up by external circumstances. As DeMuth suggested (and I tend to agree), “The Jewish state has existed in a state of constant, exigent military peril, has faced unique demands for investments in public infrastructure, and has insisted on serious investments in human capital—schooling and higher education and research,” and so cannot afford to play games with the public coffers.

I argued in my essay that the over-assertive bureaucracy was constructed to solve a problem: a political class that refused to shoulder the responsibilities of government. I implicitly argued, too, that it would be irresponsible, as so many on the right now openly desire, to weaken that bureaucracy before finding new ways to set up a more competent political echelon to pick up its slack.

There is a powerful argument—and some of the responding essays made it—that the over-strong bureaucracy is partly responsible for the fecklessness of our politicians. Indeed, I made that argument myself in the original essay. But it seems too easy to argue, in essence, that Litzman’s callous and careless disregard for his responsibilities can be blamed on Bar Siman-Tov’s competence. The electoral system that put Litzman where he should never have been seems a more promising direction for reform that might produce the healthier sort of governing structure we all agree the Jewish state needs.

I’m left with little choice, then, but to agree with Gordon, DeMuth and others who all said the same. “Bureaucratic government is a necessary stopgap when the legislature is in irons but is certainly not a long-run solution,” DeMuth wrote, summing up my views rather more succinctly than I did. “I’m afraid there is no substitute for reforming our electoral systems and legislative structures so as to facilitate the formation of effective governing coalitions. This task is, of course, particularly urgent in Israel—perhaps awaiting public insistence on serious measures for government discipline, as in the 1980s.” Amen.

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