Aaron Kalman
Working for Israel and the Jewish People
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Limit the cabinet size, for Israel’s sake

Setting a fixed limit on ministerial jobs would ease coalition talks and improve governance

The coalition talks are (unofficially) underway. Though President Shimon Peres has yet to task Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the formation of Israel’s next government, the media is full of speculation over the end results of the negotiation game, with everyone listening to anything said by anyone, so long as it sheds some new light on the process.

As David Horovitz wrote, “the coalition is meant to be a means to an end, not an end in itself,” but one key factor in making sure the coalition remains a stepping stone in the bigger scheme of things has been somewhat overlooked: Having a limited amount of ministerial posts to negotiate with would, almost automatically, restrict the demands of the different parties from day one.

In a letter to voters – published on the Times of Israel – Yair Lapid said he envisioned, among other things, a government “with no more than 18 ministers, instead of this past government’s dysfunctional load of 36 ministers and deputy ministers.”

Surprisingly (or not), Netanyahu hasn’t publicly agreed to that specific demand of the man heading the 19-seat-strong Yesh Atid party. The issues at hand, as far as he’s concerned, include security/peace talks (regarding both Iran and the Palestinians) and domestic questions (namely the redistribution of the national burden and the cost of living for middle class families).

Yes, Netanyahu mentioned the need to change the system of government, but reports in Israeli media have said the idea of shrinking the cabinet to 18 ministers was not what he meant. Such a move would, undoubtedly, limit Netanyahu’s ability to maneuver and to create ministerial jobs as a way of pleasing people.

It’s interesting to note that Netanyahu was the last, and indeed only Israeli prime minister to have a small cabinet because of legislation limiting the number of ministers he could appoint. During his first term in office (1996-1999) there were a total of 18 ministers around the cabinet table, the same number Lapid is asking to mark as the limit.

The law restricting the government’s size was passed following a cabinet of 26 ministers put together by Yitzhak Shamir. Netanyahu obeyed the law; his successor Ehud Barak canceled it and nominated 24 ministers.

Restricting the number of cabinet posts (whatever that number is) would do more than just save the unnecessary costs of a bloated cabinet and eliminate the need to change the table size in the wake of every coalition change.

It would limit the demands parties set forth as their fee for joining the coalition, because they’d know the size of the pie and how many slices they could expect to get. The ability to please individuals could be reduced, and become less of a consideration when wheeling and dealing for the formulation of Israel’s government.

Most important, governance itself would be more efficient as everyone would know what their office was in charge of. Ministries would be able to do their job more effectively without newly established ones stepping on their turf. Jobs like minister of strategic affairs or intelligence minister wouldn’t be created to please individuals while forcing the Defense Ministry to reorganize itself.

When David Ben-Gurion named Israel’s first government in 1948 there were 12 ministers. When Menachem Begin took office in 1977 he named 19 cabinet members. Since then (with the legislated exception of Netanyahu’s first term) there have always been at least 24 people around the decision making table.

In Germany there are 14 ministers, Italy has 18 and France 20. Any of those numbers would be an improvement and a statement of intent for the wider efficiency of the economy.

There are enough positions to be filled in the Knesset (committee heads, deputies etc) without tailoring new ones every four years to the demands of coalition partners.

About the Author
Aaron Kalman is a Program Officer at the Ruderman Family Foundation, working to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community. Formerly an advisor to Israel's Minister of Diaspora Affairs and a Jewish Agency emissary to Sydney, Australia, Aaron has an M.A. in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and a B.Ed. from Herzog College.