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How independent is State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman?

CM 19/05/2021

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State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman works in the same building and the same seventh-floor office near the Supreme Court in Jerusalem as his predecessor Joseph Shapira.

The take is that the physical layout of the office has stayed nearly identical. But the men occupying the office could not be more different.
Shapira was known for his formal dress and manner as well as his legalistic approach to issues, stemming from his background as a former senior district court judge.
Englman sometimes dresses more business casual and has a more relaxed style of interacting. His instincts grow out of his background as an auditor and university administrator, where focusing on the legal aspects of an issue might not be his first move.
Having run in seven marathons, he also wears a clear and tangible determination on his sleeve.
He served as CEO or chairman of the Council for Higher Education from 2017-June 2019, CEO or deputy CEO of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology from 2010-2018, and CEO of the Shoham Regional Council from 2006-2010.
But when Englman burst onto the scene as the new comptroller in June 2019, he was not widely known by the general public. Fair or not, from day one, Englman was characterized by much of the media as an enabler for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It is interesting to think about how he might have been viewed differently if his first act had been his recent decision to probe the Mount Meron Lag Ba’omer disaster, with his readiness to assign blame and name names.

In any case, after observing Englman for two years, covering his many reports and having significant interactions with his office, the Magazine can say that the true picture is far more complex than is often portrayed.
There were two central grounds for allegations about Englman being a Netanyahu enabler. From a public-relations perspective, he did not initially help himself with the speed and rollout of some of his early moves.
Fighting corruption debate
The first big hit on Englman from the progressive side of the political spectrum was that he mostly did away with the comptroller’s division looking into corruption. How one thinks about this move depends more on one’s view of the evolution of different eras of the State Comptroller’s Office itself than on the law.
Englman would say he is a return to the main trend and that his last two predecessors were a temporary departure from that trend.
In some ways the debate can be traced back to Micha Lindenstrauss taking over the role in 2005. Lindenstrauss transformed the office from a bean-counter style that put out reports on non-hot-button issues and that the political arena largely ignored. In its place, he established an office that broke into the headlines on top political issues in real time and struck fear into the hearts of top politicians.
Lindenstrauss’ successor, Joseph Shapira, who served from 2012-July 2019, started off with a more modest tone and intentions. But Shapira, sometimes seemingly against his will, eventually led the office into major controversies against both the prime minister and the prime minister’s wife.
Some former top leaders of the legal establishment have told the Magazine that they have as much or more to criticize about Lindenstrauss and Shapira for being overly activist as they do about Englman for potentially yielding too much of his gatekeeper role.
The critique says there is a clear line between ethics and criminal probes, and that the moment the comptroller thinks a probe might have criminal aspects to it, it is his duty to halt and immediately refer the file to the attorney-general.
That would be in favor of Englman.
How large of a department to probe corruption does one really need if the point is to discern early on if there is a legal issue and then immediately pass it off? Englman would say that his reduction of the corruption department has restored a proper balance between his role and the attorney-general’s role: He performs general oversight and the attorney-general probes and prosecutes criminal issues.
Sources close to the comptroller said that shutting down the corruption division applied to only eight out of 540 employees and that they were still employed, only redistributed according to sub-issues.
There has been specific criticism that Englman did not name Arye Deri in a report related to the Galilee and the Negev, or did not name Ayoub Kara in a report relating to the Communications Ministry.
Sources close to the comptroller say his counterparts in the US, UK, Australia, Finland and other countries rarely name names, though there was an acknowledgment that in rare cases like the Mount Meron or the Carmel Forest Fire tragedies, naming names could be appropriate.
Moreover, per Englman’s view he would not have been recently selected to be a future president of EUROSAI – a body of comptrollers from 49 countries, mostly from Europe, plus one from the European Union – if his approach to corruption or other key issues was in question.
Rather, his focus on cyber and widening digital oversight has been seen by his counterparts as an example of forward thinking. Further, his view would be that his last two predecessors’ larger focus on corruption meant that other important issues, like sexual harassment, got less attention.
In addition, though Shapira did issue reports about Israel’s cyber vulnerabilities, Englman is building toward a new, much larger comptroller cyber division of dozens of officials to cover the issue more comprehensively.
Sources close to the comptroller have also told the Magazine that Englman has hired six cyber companies to perform a full “red team” simulated cyber attack on all government agencies in order to expose vulnerabilities.
Still, there has been criticism of the degree to which the corruption department has been reduced. After all, the Knesset’s Comptroller Law empowers him to protect whistleblowers on such issues. Can the comptroller fully exercise these powers without a focused corruption department?
Real-time reports debate
Another area where Englman has met heavy media criticism is ending the Lindenstrauss-Shapira-era practice of real-time reports.
The Magazine spoke to lawyer Michal Rosenbaum, who has decades of experience in top government oversight roles as well as representing top public officials who the comptroller’s office has probed, about Israeli oversight. Echoing Englman – despite having been one of his chief competitors for the job – Rosenbaum said, “Oversight does not replace criminal probing authorities. That needs to be referred to the attorney-general.”
She acknowledged that some major criminal cases developed out of initial comptroller reviews and that the watchdog’s potential authority was wide-ranging. Yet, she said that many countries view focusing on individuals, as opposed to institutions, as less effective.
Referencing research from the University of Haifa, she said the key was to be able to learn what the problems were and “not to hang someone.”
Rosenbaum added that she was not against naming names or real-time oversight in some cases, saying, “Sometimes you need names and sometimes you need real time. Like with Mount Meron. Why is Englman driving in this direction [naming names and real time]? Because of the enormity and complexity of the tragedy.”
She declared that politicians are misguided in attributing Englman’s initiation of a review to somehow preventing a state commission of inquiry.
Rather, she said, in a comment unrelated to Englman, “The political situation does not look like we will have a commission. But if it turns out there is, he can rethink his review’s effectiveness.”
Also, Rosenbaum warned, “The [Meron] review may not go quietly at all. To people who think, ‘How lucky I am that Englman is conducting the review,’ I suggest not to be cocky. This will be real and it could have criminal consequences.”
Regarding corruption in general, she said his reports are not so different from the past. She was in favor of a rebalancing away from rushing to name and blame individuals.
“You only use the judgment day weapon [naming names] with certain things, where criminal charges are possible,” otherwise many officials start to shrink away from any risk and play games to cover themselves from liability instead of doing their jobs properly and boldly.MATANYAHU ENGLMAN took up the post of comptroller in June 2019. (GPO)MATANYAHU ENGLMAN took up the post of comptroller in June 2019. (GPO)
Netanyahu legal fees debate
Another problem Englman has faced has been his trying to assist Netanyahu with receiving outside financial support from tycoons for the prime minister’s legal defense. In theory, it was not Englman himself, but a comptroller committee that could approve or disapprove Netanyahu’s request. But a previous version of the committee had already rejected Netanyahu’s request as improper numerous times.
The “old” comptroller committee, appointed by prior comptroller Shapira, had said it was inherently problematic for Netanyahu to receive funding from individual tycoons for his legal defense of charges that he received illegal gifts by similarly situated tycoons.
When Englman appointed a new comptroller committee, technically there was nothing wrong with this. Yet reporting came out that some of the new members were connected to the Likud and that Englman was politicizing a legal process.
Regardless of what one thinks of Englman’s actions on this count, it is irrational to characterize his entire two-year term to date and next four years based on it.
In any case, ultimately, Netanyahu did not get the funding as donations.
Incidentally, Englman would point out that the High Court of Justice rejected petitions challenging the make-up of his revised committee and note that none of the donors were directly related to any of the charges. Moreover, Englman would likely point out that behind closed doors he had the support of some 80 MKs from across the political spectrum.
If anything, he might think, without quite saying it, that his being nominated by Netanyahu might have undermined the bipartisan support he would have had if his ideas and record were taken on their own.
When it has come to his reports, regarding which there were some blockbusters during 2020-2021 in his second year in office, the media has taken to reporting on the substance of his critiques not that differently from how it reported on his predecessors’ reports.
Corona – medical reports and timing
In a quirk of fate, Englman’s first notable report was on deficiencies in the health system, and by implication, its lack of readiness for the coronavirus on March 17, 2020. Did the report show Englman’s readiness to be independent and confront the political echelon with uncomfortable facts, or was there more than meets the eye?
A huge debate was set off by the timing of the report’s publication: Was it early since it had been scheduled for publication in May 2020? Or was it late because it came after the World Health Organization had already declared a pandemic, and could have been originally published in late 2019 or early 2020?
China already had problems with the coronavirus in December 2019, and Israel had already banned flights from China in January 2020, banned flights from several Asian countries by February 17, 2020, and started to ban a series of flights from European countries between February 27 and March 4, 2020.
Sources with knowledge of the report also say there was internal pressure from the Comptroller’s Office staff to get Englman to publish the report sooner than May 2020, but that he had to be convinced given his concerns about embarrassing Netanyahu and then-health minister Ya’acov Litzman.
Alternatively, officials in many countries did not fully appreciate the danger of the pandemic until the WHO declaration on March 11, 2020, and publishing within six days of that could be considered very fast.
Critics said that his “delay” of the report was part of a bigger problem in which he issued no reports from July 2019 until March 2020. They paint him as stalling and diluting criticism of the government in reports that Shapira had started but had not shipped out the door.
Englman’s view would be that he was obligated to learn the issues and to exercise his judgment about communicating in a way that would achieve change, not just generate combative headlines.
A major follow-up report came in October 2020. It dissected a variety of failures by the Health Ministry.
Moreover, the comptroller will issue a final follow-up report in the coming months covering approximately 15 issues the government actually handled.
Shin Bet corona surveillance report
In October 2020, Englman took his first serious position directly at odds with a Netanyahu policy, recommending ending surveillance of coronavirus-infected citizens by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Still, Englman carefully avoided challenging Netanyahu directly, suggesting “considering the issue” as opposed to an unequivocal insistence on immediately shelving the program.
Further, Englman avoided going after Netanyahu personally by name. Instead, he suggested that the decision was in the hands of Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, and discussed the National Security Council’s role.
Avoiding naming Netanyahu on the issue strained credulity for many. This was because the prime minister was the one who famously slammed his hand on the table, insisting on a return to Shin Bet surveillance in June 2020, after a three-week break.
Netanyahu also did this despite opposition from Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman himself.
While sometimes focusing on who is responsible can help avoid future problems, Englman’s view would be that sometimes the path to being effective is to focus more on the substantive issue. He would cite support from former comptroller Eliezer Goldberg (1998-2005) on this issue as well as many trends globally of how government watchdogs operate.
Englman would say that his office was the first to really get the possibility of moving away from Shin Bet coronavirus surveillance on the government’s agenda. Presumably, he would say that the pro-privacy NGOs had not made any headway before he weighed in.
The comptroller might say he made more progress because he did not attack the philosophy of using the Shin Bet tool, but its comparative inefficiency. Further, he would add that the combined push of his office and the Shin Bet helped make room for the High Court of Justice to officially order criteria for ending the practice.
In terms of limited effectiveness, Englman’s report found that only between 3% and 7% of those sent to quarantine due to Shin Bet surveillance methods were actually infected. In contrast, the number was 24% for those sent to quarantine as a result of epidemiological investigations. The government eventually invested more in epidemiological probes.
IDF not ready for chemical weapons
In another October 2020 report, Englman said the IDF was not ready for the dangers posed by a chemical-weapons attack. Highlighting why the issue needed to be taken seriously, Englman wrote, “Use of chemical weapons in war has been a known threat for many years. During the civil war in Syria, starting from 2011, the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against the rebels and against civilians.”
Training for border security units on how to inspect for or handle potential chemical items is not up to the necessary standards, said Englman. He recommended that the commander of the land forces lead a campaign to improve combat units’ readiness for chemical-weapons warfare.
In September 2014, the IDF deputy chief of staff placed responsibility for WMD gear on the Home Front Command. But in practice, the relevant equipment remained spread out in a disorganized manner throughout the infantry forces, the Home Front Command and the IDF Air and Space Forces.
Responding in May 2020, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir said the military would reevaluate its readiness for the chemical-weapons issue, but only within the context of the broader “Momentum” financial plan.
Will Englman make more progress with the IDF on this issue than those before him, or will he be similarly ignored?
In August 2020, the state comptroller issued an unusual report talking openly about aspects of the Mossad. There were questions about how the spy agency could be growing far beyond its approved budget in recent years as compared to the shrinking budget of the IDF.
In addition, the report was an extremely rare look into classified internal Mossad debates regarding the long-term future of the organization, including discussions about moving its headquarters from Glilot, north of Tel Aviv, which took place in 2011.
In fact, Englman’s first major security report as comptroller said that the spy agency blew through its NIS 1.5 billion budget, ballooning to NIS 2.6 billion in recent years.
Biometric database
The comptroller also pushed forward a change in policy of limiting or unwinding the biometric database relating to passports. Privacy concerns had delayed the database’s activation for years.
But in May 2020, Englman issued a report stating that the private details of 4.5 million citizens were inadequately protected in state databases. It seems that the key turning point came when Roi Friedman, an official from the Israel National Cyber Directorate, told the committee that a technological revolution in facial recognition had taken place since the first biometric pilot program was launched in 2013.
This and other factors made the database unnecessary, especially given the privacy dangers flagged by the comptroller and various NGOs.
After all of the above, the comptroller’s legacy may be shaped by the Meron report and other controversies which have not yet transpired. Past comptrollers got bolder about weighing in on sticky issues the longer their terms ran.
Some do not want to give Englman a chance because of his first few months in office. But the truest account of his story must consider the full range of his impact. 

Source: Jerusalem Post

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