The extravagant size of Israel’s new government: No justification whatsoever

The establishment of the Netanyahu-Gantz government required many compromises that are ethically questionable and are potentially damaging to the institutional foundations of the Israeli regime. Some can be tolerated as the price that has to be paid in order to extricate us from the political dead end. That being said, there is absolutely no way to justify the extravagant size of the new government.

Exactly five years after the previous government took the oath of office, and after a year and a half of a political nightmare, the 35th Government of Israel — the Netanyahu-Gantz Government — has finally been inaugurated. An abundance of criticism has already been hurled at the coalition agreement and the legislative amendments that were required to enable the forming of the government: the invention of a political hybrid (based on rotation and with an “Alternate Prime Minister”), the cutback of the 23rd Knesset’s term, the additional erosion in the power of the parliamentary opposition, the freezing of appointments to senior positions, and more.

Without detracting from the fact that these are justified criticisms, it is impossible to ignore the backdrop against which led to the formula on which the government is based. Most Israelis are tired of the endless loop of elections, conducted in a toxic public atmosphere, and end up with no clear decision. Most of them want to see the formation of a unity government that will be able to effectively cope with the current medical, economic, and employment crises. What is more, this Siamese-twin government is based on a power-sharing mechanism that has a good chance of toning down the political discourse or at least of checking the troubling trends that have eroded the foundations of our democratic system. If we take this broader context into account, we can be a bit more forgiving of the distorted solutions that made it possible to form the government.

But if we can grit our teeth and live with some of the unprecedented arrangements — viewing them as the unavoidable price to pay for ending the political stalemate — there is one thing that absolutely cannot be justified: the inflated size of the government. The 35th government is going to break the record for the number of ministers and deputy ministers, both in absolute terms and in proportion to the size of the coalition which supports it.

In the (not-so-distant) past, the Knesset legislated a ceiling on the number of cabinet ministers and deputy ministers. There are several justifications for this limit. First, having so many people sitting around the table undermines the efficiency of the government’s deliberations and the decision-making process. When every minister has to have her or his say, government meetings turn into a round of endless babble. Second, the large number of ministers creates an incentive to set up new ministries for which the need is doubtful. Every new ministry appropriates control of various domains from existing ministries, increases the friction in the division of labor among agencies, creates duplication in planning processes and strategies, and detracts from the ability to effectively promote policy. Third, this is a waste of public funds. Some will argue that the budgetary outlay on a few extra ministers and a few new ministries is marginal. They may be right. But given the current economic plight in which so many Israeli citizens find themselves, one might expect that our elected representatives would set a personal example and make do with a leaner government.

Finally, a look at other countries reveals that a government with more than 30 ministers is an outlier by all standards. When we compare Israel with democracies whose population is roughly the same as ours, we see that all of them have smaller governments. For example, the current Portuguese cabinet consists of 19 ministers; in Austria, the figure is 14, and in Belgium, only 12. Ireland, where an unprecedented unity government is currently formed, will manage with 15 ministers, for the simple reason that this figure is stipulated in the Irish constitution — which, like any real constitution, is much more stable than our fragile Basic Laws, which are constantly being amended to accommodate the latest political needs.

So there is no real justification for such a large government. Blue and White acted wisely when it decided that it could do without deputy ministers and does not have to fill the full quota of portfolios it was offered in the coalition agreement. We can only hope that the incoming government will be serious about advancing the proposal to limit the number of ministries. This idea was already ratified by a government decision two years ago, but, like so many before it, was put on hold and evaporated into thin air.

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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