Comptroller tells us nothing new about Israel gas fiasco

Amiram Barkat

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira is good at criticizing what is wrong, but says nothing about how to fix it.

All the empty phrases that politicians keep in their napsacks will be used today in the clamor surrounding the publication of the State Comptroller's report on the subject of the natural gas sector. "The state failed," "a series of grave failures," "multi-system breakdown," and, inevitably, "state investigatory commission."

A moment before we all shake our heads, shrug our shoulders, and move on to the next scandal, mightn't it be worth our while to try to understand whether there is something we can learn from the report about the government's actions on the question of natural gas? Is the report getting us ahead on the road to improving the situation?

The first insight to be learned from the report is about the limitations of its writer, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira himself. He is good at telling us what we already know, but when it comes to what should be done - he has nothing to say. The government's key problem in managing the natural gas sector is the regulators' inability to make decisions within a reasonable time, endless foot-dragging, and the tendency of each regulator to stick to his own narrow area in a way that hinders the work of the other regulators. Secondary problems are the regulators' lack of professional knowledge, which makes them lack self-confidence and decisiveness; excessive reliance on information from the developers and interested parties; and a culture of inconsistency and opportunism, in which every understanding and agreement is merely a basis for changes, errors are forgivable, and regrets and changes are permissible, and even mandatory, if they serve the immediate public interest. What about the long term? In the long term, we all die.

The State Comptroller does good and thorough work in describing this difficult situation, although it is known and recognized by all those dealing in the field. How many times have we asked why it took the Antitrust Authority director general two and a half years to write a compromise agreement, and why it took him nine months to regret it, and why even his resignation took effect only three months after he officially announced it? How many times did we rebuke the Ministry of Finance prices committee, which has been wallowing for four years already in the fateful question of whether or not to impose price controls on natural gas? How many times have we attacked the behavior of the Public Utilities Authority (Electricity) chairperson, who is waging an aggressive campaign to change the gas agreement with Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) (TASE: ELEC.B22), even though she herself approved it after prolonged discussions?

The State Comptroller correctly identified the weaknesses and defects, and criticizes (gently) those who need to be criticized. Beyond the soft criticisms and rebukes, however, he proposes no solution, no way out, or alternative scheme for escaping this depressing imbroglio. More coordination? More cooperation? A permanent and ongoing mechanism for coordination and integration with responsibility and authority?

It must be said honestly: it is unrealistic and wrong to expect the State Comptroller to go further in order to change the administrative order in Israel, fire officials, or dictate policy - this is the job of the government and the person who heads it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, only got involved in the gas issue when there was already a crisis requiring an immediate solution. The rest of the time, the officials' behavior can continue undisturbed until the end of time. There is no reason in the report for believing that the next report - which will be written in another five years at most - will have anything different to say.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on July 20, 2015

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2015

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