Elections are behind us, and coalition talks are the tumultuous waters being crossed until we reach the formation of a government. And, just like the previous time this happened, once again the debate about the size of Israel’s government is on the public agenda. After being limited, by law, to a maximum of 18 ministers and the prime minister, some people are talking about changing the legislation in order to allow more people to hold portfolios.
Just a quick reminder: Israel’s 32nd government, sworn into office in 2009, was the largest in the country’s short history – with 30 ministers and nine deputy ministers. The latest government was already reduced to 18 – following a massive campaign, led by Yair Lapid. Now, as Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud try to form a coalition with other parities, it’s reported that the size restriction passed by the last government will be abolished. (Yes, that can happen – and has in fact been done in the past…)
But this idea of limiting the number of ministers is wrong, it misleads the public and doesn’t tackle the real issue. The size of the government doesn’t matter – it’s how you use your ministers that counts.
The real issue is that in 2009, when the government sworn in was the largest in Israel’s history, four new ministries were opened in order to provide the opportunity of giving people ministerial jobs. Government offices, such as the Intelligence Services Minister,were formed out of the blue and carved out among politicians who were given a prize.
Fast forward four years to the massive campaign to cap the government at 18 members. When people fought to narrow the number of ministers, they didn’t think about closing these invented offices and portfolios; so people like Naftali Bennet and Silvan Shalom actually held three different ministerial positions.
That’s not a healthy situations, for three main reasons:
Firstly, it artificially divides the work on certain aspects of public planning and policy among a number of offices, hampering any advancement or change by forced bureaucracy. The work is also hampered by each office wanting to lead certain projects, and by the inevitable ego (and values) clashes between the ministers holding each one of the portfolios.
The second reason is the obvious waste of public funds. Every government office involves hiring an executive, office space, supplies, an advertising budget, cars, drivers, petrol money, cleaners, phones, travel expenses and more. This money is at the expense of other places in the budget, usually the likes of health, education or infrastructure.
Finally, by having ministers holding two or more portfolios, the government is making a conscious decision that those offices will not have a full-time minister at their helm.
Just to make things clear let us look at a couple of examples, dealing both with Israel’s security in the face of external factors and with the country’s domestic and economic development.
In 2009 the position of Intelligence Services Minister was created out of thin air, while that of Strategic Affairs Minister of Israel was revived (it had been created out of the blue in 2006 and closed in 2008). These two new offices provided two politicians with the ability to be members of government, but essentially provided them with tasks that had, until then, been handled by the Ministry of Defense.
Until 2006 the Ministry of Defense did a fine job on its own…and from 2006 till 2008 two were enough… Really, besides the creation of jobs for certain individuals, it’s hard to see any benefit or reason in having these three government offices exist.
Another example is the creation of the Regional Cooperation Minister of Israel (created in 1999) and the reopening of the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry (shut down in 1975, reopened and closed a number of times). Both ministries take their work out of the Foreign Ministry, and one can only guess that the eroding of Israel’s diplomats and their work might have been different had they not been around.
Also domestically there are such questions. Why does Israel need a Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee (created in 2006)? Does the rest of the country not need developing – and is having a special deputy minister in the Interior or Construction ministries not sufficient to give these regions the special attention they need? Or maybe it’s needed, but it should replace the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, created in 1948 when the Kibbutzim and Israeli farmers were a driving force – but it remains even though it represents some 2-3% of the land and population?
A final example would be the Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and Space ministries. These ones have been bundled together in numerous different ways, sometimes under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and sometimes divided among two or even three ministers.
The list goes on.
Recently Moshe Kahlon said he wants to hold all the tools needed to tackle some of Israel’s greatest economic challenges. In his statement he challenged that Netanyahu was “dividing the tools” to pacify various political parties instead of making sure people could get things done.
Kahlon’s statement rings true, but if he wishes to truly tackle the issues it might be more than just a question of dividing portfolios; it probably will demand the closure of certain offices and strategic rearranging of others.
The government reform Israel needs to deal with the many challenges it faces, from outside and within, is not of the electoral system – but of the way the executive branch is constructed.