Israel’s new government was formed with 34 ministers, the largest number of ministerial positions in the history of the state. In a totally counter-intuitive move 28.3% of Knesset members are now also members of the Cabinet.
But those facts by themselves don’t tell the whole story. Along with this explosion of ministerial positions, comes a very real cost as well. At this week’s meeting of Israel’s cabinet, across the board cuts to existing ministerial budgets totaling NIS 80 million (about $23 million) were approved in order to finance the cost of the newly created ministries, most of whom are, at best, of questionable value.
One of the most obscene cuts was made to the Ministry of Health when, in the midst of a major pandemic, $1.2 million was shaved from its budget. In a country which ranks lowest among OECD countries in the number of per-capita hospital beds, how many more beds could have been built with this $1.2 million?
Another $1.1 million was slashed from the Ministry of Transportation even though everyone admits that in order to maintain social distancing Israel needs tens of thousands of additional buses. How many additional buses could have been bought for that money?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has been operating at skeletal staff proportions for some years, had $4 million taken from its budget. Does the government really believe that we have enough resources in this important ministry to reduce the budget? Israel does not even have enough money to have separate people handling the job of Ambassador to the United States and Ambassador to the United Nations, yet the government reduces that budget further.
To be sure, one of the great fears that has surfaced during the current COVID-19 crisis period is that the government will take advantage of the over arching concern about the virus to pass legislation that in normal times would be highly scrutinized. It would seem that this is one of those situations where given the local population’s daily challenges involved in dealing with the Coronavirus, most of us simply did not take sufficient notice of the inflated cabinet and its cost.
To be sure, the government has handled Israel’s response to the virus in an admirable way. If we compare Israel, with a population of 9.2 million people and 284 deaths from the virus to Sweden with 10.2 million people with 4,395 deaths, our government deserves to be applauded. Israel decided to save lives at all cost while Sweden basically said it is ok if some (primarily old) people die. For how the value of human life is respected in Israel, I have never been prouder to have the privilege of living here.
But that does not give the political leadership license to run roughshod over the principles of good governance and fiscal responsibility. Important as it was to finally have a government after three elections and more than a year without a functional political establishment, this need not have been accomplished by throwing caution to the wind and punishing ministries that were already challenged to provide essential services.
Former US President John F. Kennedy once said: “No responsibility of government is more fundamental than the responsibility of maintaining the highest standard of ethical behavior for those who conduct the public business.”
Ethics means more than simply being individually honest. It also means being ethical when it comes to forming governments, allocating funding and recognizing the needs of the people who elected those who govern. It would appear that the current government has lost sight of this value to the ultimate detriment of all of us.