Election of Israel’s state comptroller turning political

For Giora Romm, the Blue and White party made no real effort to promote his candidacy for the position of state comptroller and did not try to mobilize other opposition parties for the vote.

al-monitor Maj. Gen. Giora Romm, seen in a picture dated 1995.  Photo by Wikipedia.

Jun 7, 2019

The Knesset chose Israel’s new state comptroller on June 3. It was the last decision by the Knesset before dispersing ahead of the Sept. 17 elections. Coalition candidate Matanyahu Engelman was chosen for the job, defeating Blue and White’s candidate, Maj. Gen. (ret) Giora Romm.

Two days later, Romm was interviewed by the Army Radio; it was an emotional interview that generated quite a few headlines. He drew a comparison between the leadership of the Blue and White party and the military unit that featured in the Israeli cult film “Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer.” Romm said this was the image that popped into his head when he realized he may be the opposition’s candidate, but that he was setting out alone in this losing battle.

Beyond his less than flattering depiction of the inner workings of the Blue and White party and its four leaders, the glimpse that Romm offered of the way the Knesset functions can hardly be considered a source of pride for any of its current members. It is truly rare that someone enters the system for such a brief time yet manages to describe the mechanism’s inner workings with such clarity.

The whole state comptroller election story may have lasted less than two weeks, but in his time as the opposition’s candidate for state comptroller, Romm saw the Knesset in all its failings. He will not be the next state comptroller, but his penetrating comments are an important document that will resound far beyond his amusing anecdote about “Halfon Hill.”

Romm is the guest who saw everything in the brief time he flirted with the political system. His administrative record and experience, his organizational skills, and his pedantry, self-confidence and rhetorical ability made what he said into one of the most important documents ever given to the Israeli public and political leadership alike in this era.

The prime minister’s candidate, Engelman, received the support of 67 Knesset members, while only 48 supported Romm. Another five abstained. The opposition now has 60 Knesset members, not including Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman, so that this defeat can be seen as a sign of the political paucity of the Blue and White party. Its members could not consolidate their ranks when confronting Netanyahu while the prime minister acted like a well-oiled machine and even managed to win votes from the opposition.

Romm was certainly a fitting candidate. He was a senior air force commander who held top management positions after leaving the Israel Defense Forces, including a term as head of the Civil Aviation Authority. As he described himself, “When I get somewhere, I don’t deal with some little explosion or other. I take the whole living room floor apart instead. …” He thought he could be the perfect state comptroller, representing the public’s interests instead of being someone sent to implement some political agenda or other.

Romm assumed he had a good chance to beat Netanyahu’s candidate, a rather anonymous figure without any real public presence. The fact that Netanyahu failed to put together a government and was at a political low point, surrounded by enemies, including some in the Likud, contributed to the sense that Romm might surprise everyone and get elected. That is not at all what happened. The opposition failed to seize this opportunity to prove its effectiveness. According to Romm, not one of the party’s four leaders took the initiative and acted on his behalf. No one in the Blue and White party organized the troops. “The opposition treated this like they were some company of new recruits on holiday in a public park,” he claimed in his interview with Army Radio.

Romm’s initial conclusion after his defeat was that he and Engelman are nothing more than pawns in a political battle that is much larger than them. “The process of selecting a state comptroller could best be described as shallow, bordering on contemptuous,” he said in the interview. Romm added, “Throughout the entire process, no one showed any interest whatsoever in my positions or how I viewed the job. There was nothing. Nada. I gradually realized that both Matanyahu and I were nothing more than pawns. The race was about something different entirely, and Matanyahu and I just happened to be there. It would have happened to anyone else too.”

This is a disturbing conclusion since it reveals that no efforts were made to hide this. While the Likud, including the prime minister, was open about wanting a state comptroller who would be less confrontational, the Blue and White party had a candidate with a bold public record, which could have been a major selling point.

In many ways, Romm was a victim of the bigger campaign now being waged by the prime minister to weaken the judicial system and any other groups critical of him — including the state comptroller’s office — that he thinks have a long track record of persecuting him. The Blue and White party could have at least fought for their candidate, highlighting his efficiency and how hard it would be to push him around. Even if he lost, they could have shown that an alternative approach is entirely feasible. Instead, they raised a white flag of surrender with their inactivity and contributed to the weakening of the very institution of state comptroller.

In his interview, Romm said that Likud Knesset member Gila Gamliel was the sole exception to the rule and that none of the other 119 Knesset members showed any interest in his record. They did not do their homework, and they followed a herd mentality when they actually voted. What does that say about them? Do they have no interest in finding out about whom they are voting for? That is exactly why it is a secret ballot in the first place. Was there not a single member of the Likud who thought that Romm was a better candidate than Engelman?

What hurt most was the attitude of the Arab members of the Knesset. Romm contends they settled the score with him over his past as a fighter pilot who targeted Arabs during military operations. As he described it, the meeting that shocked him most was with the members of the Knesset from the Arab Hadash-Ta’al list. “I suddenly realized that all of my life I have been a pilot for Jews and Jews alone. When I tried to explain [to them] that I was flying on behalf of all citizens of Israel, they made it quite clear to me that I was only flying on behalf of the country’s Jewish citizens. …” Romm said.

In describing his meeting with Arab Knesset member Aida Touma-Suleiman, he said, “Based on the way she looked at me and spoke to me, all I wanted to tell her was my military ID number and blood type.” That is his version of what happened. It later turned out that Touma-Suleiman actually voted for Romm, and she may not have been the only member of her party who did so either. She came to regret her vote when she later heard his remarks.

Peeling back the arrogance in Romm’s remarks helps us understand the vast differences separating the Arab parties from the other opposition parties. They helped Netanyahu dissolve the Knesset and may have saved him from being deposed. Then, when voting for the next state comptroller, the same Arab parties failed to form a united front with the rest of the opposition. Regardless of who is at fault, this does not bode well for what will happen the day after September’s election.