Rarely has so much political interest been focused on a single piece of furniture.
The extra table now standing in the Knesset chamber has come to symbolize Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, a supersized — and poorly constructed — behemoth. In fact, wags note, the table is more solidly built than the government that will sit around it: At least the table has no holes in it.
The construction of the largest government in Israel’s history, one that makes one of every four lawmakers a minister, has touched a raw nerve among politicians and the public. Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was reportedly so keen to downplay the size of his Cabinet that he had chairs shrunk by removing their arm rests in order to avoid the bad press generated by bringing in an extra table.
In part, the negative reaction to a large government stems from the cost of extra ministerial salaries and perks, as well as the clumsiness that hobbles effective governing. But the main cause of the outcry is that it’s widely seen as proof that the Knesset has become more about politicians hustling for plum jobs than about serving the public.
“People believe that [politicians] really don’t want to solve problems or to manage the country, but to sit in government for the status,” said Shlomo Mizrahi, a public policy expert at Ben-Gurion University.
Adding injury to the insult, the 30-member Cabinet, including no fewer than five ministers without portfolios, and a handful of newly invented ministries, will not have a health minister, because of a peculiar coalition agreement with one small party. This will leave the critical health ministry unrepresented in key budget and policy discussions that it can ill-afford to miss.
The undesirability of large governments is a rare point of almost universal agreement in Israel, a country characterized by disagreement on every other topic.
When Olmert built a 25-member Cabinet in May 2006, Netanyahu described it as wasteful to an unprecedented degree. He went on to strongly support a bill to cap the government at 18 ministers.
Netanyahu ally Gideon Saar, who is now education minister, said, when proposing the government-cap bill, that the “cost of appointing so many ministers constitutes a waste of public funds at the expense of essential needs.”
Needs, it turns out, are in the eye of the beholder. When Netanyahu was asked to form a government this year, he
had to make generous promises to the parties he wooed as partners, while still finding jobs for his own party’s lawmakers.
Now, Saar’s legislation, which was never passed, has been turned against the education minister and his party. On April 6, an official of the opposition party Kadima told the Forward that the party had submitted a bill limiting the government to 18 ministers. The draft bill “basically just used their well-justified arguments,” the official said.
The initial outcry against the swollen government focused on the burden on the public purse, with the media estimating that running the extra ministries over the life of the government will cost around $75 million.
But the discussion quickly moved away from the financial cost and toward a consideration of what the new setup means for Israel’s political culture.
“The problem is not the financial cost of each minister; in relative terms, this is small change,” wrote Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea, widely considered Israel’s most influential journalist.
Rather, Barnea contended, the problem “is that when there are so many government ministers, there is no government at all. It’s just like the value of money during a period of crazy inflation, when the currency looks like money and smells like money, but you can’t buy anything with it at the market.”
This change in focus was spurred by the realization that Netanyahu has no plans to appoint a health minister.
Israel has a minister of intelligence and atomic energy, and a minister of improvement of government services, but just a deputy minister in charge of the health ministry, which receives more funding than any other ministry except defense and education.
Large numbers of Israelis have taken this as proof that in the Knesset, political survival has come to eclipse public service.
Though Netanyahu has not elaborated on the reason for failing to appoint a health minister, it seems to be a result of a strange combination of hard bargaining and ideological stubbornness on the part of the ultra-Orthodox faction United Torah Judaism.
During coalition negotiations, the faction presented its traditional demand that it play a key role in the government without holding any Cabinet ministries.
The party has joined numerous past coalitions without ever accepting a Cabinet ministry, because its non-Zionist principles do not allow it to become part of the state’s ruling establishment. Instead, its leaders have become deputy ministers in departments where the minister’s chair is left vacant. Therefore, the party can control an influential, patronage-rich ministry without taking an oath of allegiance to the Jewish state. The deputy health minister will be party boss Yaakov Litzman, a Brooklyn-reared Gerer Hasid who previously served as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee.
The country’s doctors and hospital heads are furious, claiming that Netanyahu has sold the nation’s health down the river to boost his power. The Israel Medical Association has petitioned the high court, saying that while it has no concerns about Litzman’s abilities, no politician can take care of the nation’s health properly unless he or she has full ministerial authority.
Because Litzman is not a full minister, he cannot vote in Cabinet meetings. He can attend these meetings only when health-related matters are discussed, and he will not be able to sign off on decisions affecting his ministry, the IMA points out. The association fears that the power vacuum will be filled by unelected bureaucrats.
As health workers voice their concerns about a possible threat to health care, policy experts are raising their worries about a worsening of relations between the government and the public.
At Ben-Gurion University, Mizrahi conducts regular surveys on trust in government. He told the Forward that it is currently at an all-time low, but is about to drop further.
Keen to make political capital out of the situation, Kadima frames it even more dramatically. “In many ways, the problem is greater than economic and security crises, as it affects public confidence, which is at the crux of the government’s ability to respond to challenges,” lawmaker Yohanan Plesner claimed in an interview with the Forward.
Problems are also anticipated inside the Cabinet and on the back benches of the Knesset.
It’s feared that the creation of new ministries will lead to government work being duplicated or falling through the cracks amid confusion over who is responsible for what.
“We now have a minister for strategic threats and one for intelligence services,” said Gadi Taub, a lecturer in public policy and communications at Hebrew University. “So if we have a strategic threat with an intelligence element, who is responsible?”
Taub said that given the inevitable confusion that will result, he believes that Netanyahu has formed a “completely unworkable Cabinet.”
As for the parliament’s own work, independent of the executive, the Israeli daily Haaretz has suggested that it will suffer from “the great manpower robbery of the Knesset.”
Counting all ministers and deputies, one-third of the 120-member Knesset is tied up with ministerial duties, meaning there’s a lack of lawmakers to conduct the legislature’s business.
“If they want to keep a functioning parliamentary system, they need to increase the size of the Knesset by 30 members,” said Tel Aviv University political scientist Gideon Doron, president of the Israeli Association of Political Scientists.
The large number of ministers also means that committees will have reduced input from parties that are in the coalition. Ministers do not sit on committees, but in key coalition parties such as Likud and Labor, more than half of all lawmakers are ministers. As a result, the backbench lawmakers from the main governing parties will be spread thinly over several committees and will lack time and energy to commit to them properly.
“The situation means, paradoxically, that the parties of the government will be in a minority in the committees where laws are being made and redesigned,” Doron said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at email@example.com.