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A jumbo-size government? Now? Really?

Reports of a 30- to 34-minister cabinet in the works beg for a public outcry: Costly, inefficient and divisive is not what we need today
A cabinet meeting December 1, 2019, back when the government consisted of 'only' 29 ministers. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
A cabinet meeting December 1, 2019, back when the government consisted of 'only' 29 ministers. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Now, with the economy facing an unprecedented challenge, the number of job-seekers is rocketing towards a million, and many Israeli citizens are having to tighten their belts, we look in astonishment at the prospect of an inflated government. According to latest reports, the new government will be made up of between 30 and 34 ministers. If this turns out to be the case, it will equal or break the previous high record, set by the second Netanyahu government exactly eleven years ago. Before that happens, and before the coalition agreements are signed, we must shout and scream our disbelief at our elected representatives: Seriously? Don’t you have even a tiny drop of self-awareness? Did it never occur to you that this is the time to set a personal example of solidarity with our stressed citizens?

We must stress: even in normal times such a huge government is unnecessary and undesirable. That is why, in 2014, the Knesset amended the Basic Law: The Government and set a limit of 19 ministers, and no more. But only a year later, when the fourth Netanyahu government was formed, coalition pressures caused the law to be suspended, so as to enable the appointment of 23 ministers.

There are several justifications for limiting the number of ministers in government. The first – to be kind to the public purse. Although we can debate the true budgetary implications  of the ceiling (and ask whether they are marginal or substantial), and argue that the outcry against the squandering of our tax shekels reeks of populism, it is clear that fewer ministers, deputy ministers, and ministries – would indeed save us all money. Second, a government with so many members cannot be efficient when it comes to its discussions and decision-making processes. When all the ministers have to have their say, government meetings turn into endless babbling festivals. What is more, crowning additional ministers creates an incentive to create additional portfolios for them, whose necessity is doubtful at best. Every new ministry appropriates control over what was previously the domain of another ministry; increases the friction in the division of labor among the ministries; undermines the continuity in dealing with issues, and deals a blow to the capacity to promote policies effectively. As a result, the stability and continuity of the executive branch and public service are weakened.

Comparisons with other countries reveal that a government with 30 ministers is an extreme outlier. If we look at democracies with populations similar to Israel’s, we find that they all have “lean” governments: Portugal currently has 19 ministers; Ireland- 15; Austria- 14; and Belgium makes do with only 12.

Can such a large government be justified because it is a “unity government”? Absolutely not. The unity government formed in 1969, which rested on a coalition of 102 Knesset members, had 24 ministers; the unity government formed in 1984, with the support of 97 MKs, had 25 ministers. Given that the emerging coalition will be much smaller, with about 75 MKs behind it, there seems to be no justification for such an inflated government.

All these points are valid in normal times, let alone during the current crisis. This is the time to call on our elected representatives to set a personal example and take a small step towards rebuilding public trust in the institutions of government, which has been ground to dust over the past year. If the slogans “Israel first and foremost”  and “we are establishing a unity government for the good of the Israeli public”  have any meaning, then please—make do with an efficient government of 19 ministers (as stipulated by law). Such a move would convey an important message about striving for efficiency, taking on a serious approach, saving of public funds, and would demonstrate true solidarity with the citizens of Israel.

Dr. Ofer Kenig is a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a senior lecturer in the Ashkelon Academic College.

About the Author
Dr. Ofer Kenig is a researcher in the Israel Democracy Institute and a Senior Lecturer in Ashkelon Academic College. He recently co-authored the book, "From Party Politics to Personalized Politics.".
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