It happened. With 73 votes in favor, the Knesset elected the 35th Government of the State of Israel.
And no one is happy.
“I’ve taken part in swearings-in of governments, from the coalition side and from the opposition side,” said MK Yair Lapid in his maiden speech as opposition leader shortly before the Sunday vote. “It was always a celebration. Families sat excited in the gallery. The new ministers sat excited in their seats. That’s not what’s happening this time.”
Turning to the two bridegrooms, Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, he minced no words: “We know exactly what you think of each other. There’s nothing I can say here from the podium that will be worse or more violent or ugly than the things you’ve already said about each other, and that you still say about each other behind the other’s back when the microphones are turned off.”
Lapid is right, of course. Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz, the prime minister and alternate prime minister respectively, like each other, or like the fact that they’re in a government together.
And they haven’t hidden the fact. It was either “unity,” said Gantz in his own speech Sunday, or “a kind of civil war.”
“The people have spoken” in three consecutive deadlocked elections, Gantz said. “The people told us: Stop fighting amongst yourselves and start working for us.”
It was a noble sentiment, and polls have shown broad support for a unity government. If only the sentiment hadn’t come just minutes after Netanyahu had read out to the Knesset podium, in a speech broadcast to the nation, the entire interminable litany of ministers and convoluted job titles in Israel’s largest-ever cabinet.
The details rankle, and no Israeli media outlet, not even the most fervently pro-Netanyahu among them, has failed to point accusingly at the new “Ministry for Strengthening and Advancing Community” the prime minister just created, or the “minister in the Defense Ministry” Gantz just appointed who will serve alongside Gantz, the actual defense minister, or the strange lumping together of higher education with the water supply, or the equally baffling removal of the community policing program from, well, the police.
Was that what the people meant when they asked their politicians to “start working for us?” No one in the new government even attempted to explain these changes, reasoning correctly that the explanations would probably sound worse than the thing itself.
A government of 35 ministers was voted into office on Sunday — five more than the previous all-time high in Netanyahu’s 2009 government. It’s important to grasp the gargantuan scale of the new government in the Israeli experience; it is 66 percent larger than the average Israeli government formed after an election, and 35% larger than the average since 2001. It is so large, with 35 (soon to be 36) ministers and up to 16 deputy ministers, that it literally leaves the 120-seat Knesset without enough MKs to allow for the full and unencumbered functioning of the parliament’s committees.
It is possible that the focus of public anger and frustration is misplaced, that the troubling thing about this government isn’t the extra ministers, with their unnecessary staffs and drivers and honorifics, nor the fact that the new ministries seem contrived, nor even that the nation’s leaders appear to some Israelis to be ambitious to the point of childish egomania.
The real trouble lies in the details of the new ministries, in the specific assignments handed out by Netanyahu and (to a lesser extent) Gantz, and in the harm these assignments will do to the agencies themselves.
In praise of ‘ministers without portfolio’ and contrived ministries
Israeli governments have always been prone to inventing new and unnecessary ministries to help stabilize coalitions. In a parliamentary coalition system, the ability to give ever more political actors a seat at the table translates into broader and more stable coalitions. Everyone claims to want the latter result, but no one seems to appreciate that the former is its cost.
Ironically, it is the public criticism of bloated government that drives its rising cost.
In the past, when an Israeli prime minister wanted to add someone to his or her cabinet but had no ministry left to appoint them to, they would pronounce them a “minister without portfolio.” It was a cheap way to add their voice and their vote to the cabinet table without pretending that they ran a “ministry,” and without the expense of establishing an artificial ministry for them to pretend to run.
The first “minister without portfolio” was economist and bank executive Peretz Naftali, who joined David Ben Gurion’s government in 1951 as a portfolio-free minister — just three years after the establishment of the state.
It worked for the left and for the right alike. In his first term as prime minister, Menachem Begin appointed Haim Landau a minister without portfolio in 1978, keeping Landau at his side in the cabinet even though he’d failed to win a Knesset seat in the 1977 elections.
And so it was, in fact, with a long procession of legendary statesmen and dignitaries throughout the country’s history, from left and right, men and women, religious and secular, conservative and communist, whose experience was sought at the cabinet table and no ministry was concocted to justify that fact. Famous ministers without portfolio include Moshe Arens, former IDF chief of staff Motta Gur, former Haganah chief of staff Yisrael Galili, Shulamit Aloni, Pinchas Sapir, Ezer Weizman, Yosef Burg, and even the renowned Abba Eban.
The widespread tut-tutting at such appointments is a recent development, and helped drive the spectacle witnessed on Thursday, in which would-be ministers — including some like Avi Dichter who brought long years of service and deep experience to the table — were left scrambling desperately to concoct some title, some area of responsibility, however laughable, to justify a seat at the table.
Yet even the contrived ministries aren’t new. Ministries would sometimes be invented as coalitions grew. In 1964, Akiva Govrin became Israel’s first tourism minister. In 1977, Yitzhak Moda’i became the first energy minister. Both ministries were formed by spinning small sub-units of the Ministry of Trade and Industry into new cabinet-level bodies.
Fast forward to the present day. Tourism injected $7.2 billion into the Israeli economy in 2018, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. The Energy Ministry now leads some of the nation’s most important strategic initiatives, from nuclear research to the extraction and export of Israel’s natural gas reserves. No one today needs to be convinced of the ministries’ validity and importance.
Looked at from the perspective of that history, some of the supposedly egregious contrivances announced on Sunday take on a new light.
Gantz’s decision to appoint Michael Biton a “minister in the Defense Ministry” drew much mockery on Sunday, unfairly. Gantz essentially appointed a “minister without portfolio” at his side. Biton will sit at the cabinet table as one of Blue and White’s 16 ministers, but without the expense of a new ministry. This is the old, cheap sort of contrivance that served Israeli governments well throughout the nation’s history.
Nor is Biton’s post an unreasonable invention. His portfolio in the Defense Ministry was described by Gantz as “responsible for civilian affairs,” giving cabinet-level attention to the Defense Ministry’s department for rehabilitating wounded soldiers, the department for the families of fallen soldiers, commemoration and heritage, and the enormous fund that distributes grants and scholarships to discharged soldiers to help them jumpstart their civilian lives.
Biton will manage a budget exceeding NIS 7 billion, more than most mid-sized ministries, and will essentially serve as Israel’s “secretary for veterans affairs,” as the Americans call it, a full-fledged cabinet-level post in the United States separate from the Defense Department. And he will do it for the cost of a single office, all the while freeing up his boss, a former IDF chief of staff, to focus on military and strategic matters.
None of that is to say that Blue and White is immune to the tendency to add bloat to the cabinet. Blue and White MK Orit Farkash-Hacohen, the well-regarded former head of the national electric company, was sworn in as Israel’s latest “strategic affairs minister,” a post that despite its 14-year lifespan has yet to justify its existence as a distinct cabinet-level agency.
Likud’s Eli Cohen will similarly serve as “intelligence minister,” another oddball post now celebrating its 11th birthday, that despite its name has no oversight or even input in the goings-on at Israel’s intelligence agencies.
An Israeli public that can’t stand to see a “minister without portfolio” must now swallow much more expensive ministers, each with dozens of staffers and high-rent office space, that for some reason constitute in some technical sense a portfolio.
In the national eye-rolling at the newfangled ministries, the foolish has been lumped together with the wise, and good judgment has been lost.
Is it really unreasonable to spin off the water development and management duties of the energy ministry to a separate agency — in a semi-arid country in which water is a growing worry for government planners? No one questions the need for an energy ministry today; will anyone doubt the importance of a water ministry 20 years from now?
Handicapping the government
“We know that stability and continuity are critical to the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said at the first meeting of the 35th Government in the Knesset’s Chagall Hall on Sunday, by way of excusing the new ministries. “I’ve seen much more interesting names over the years,” he quipped. “The names aren’t important.”
He’s right. The new government should not be judged on the number of ministers with unimportant-sounding titles. The handful of ministries that genuinely have nothing at all to do is relatively small and most aren’t new.
The trouble with the new government lies not in the ministries it has added, but in the ones it has broken apart.
A careful look at the rejiggering of the cabinet reveals a worrying pattern. The ministries were redistributed in politically advantageous ways for the prime minister, weakening opponents and rewarding loyalists — but often at a dire cost to the agencies themselves.
Orly Levy-Abekasis’s new Ministry for Strengthening and Advancing Community is perhaps the best example of these.
To construct the ministry, and to allow her to pretend its existence is justified, vital programs had to be sacrificed on the altar of Levy-Abekasis’s political reputation. The “City Without Violence” program, a collaboration of the welfare and public security ministries that sends social workers into high-crime areas to help develop community policing programs, was unplugged from its administrative home and handed to Levy-Abekasis. It was thus detached administratively from the two agencies that built it and must still implement it on the ground: the social workers assigned by the Welfare Ministry and the police units assigned to it by the Public Security Ministry.
The same thing happened to the Authority for Combating Alcohol and Drugs and the National Staff for the Protection of Children Online, both agencies whose vital work involves intimate coordination with police — and that now find themselves distanced from the police.
The details can get dreary, but one more example highlights the danger for the agencies involved. Likud’s Tzipi Hotovely will be handed an as-yet unmade “settlement ministry” charged with developing and expanding settlements in the West Bank, among other priorities. It was a gesture by Likud to religious-Zionist voters after the very public breakup with the Yamina party over the past week.
But Netanyahu also announced on Sunday that Hotovely would be appointed Israel’s next ambassador to London in three months’ time, and the ministry would be handed to the secular, national-security-focused Tzachi Hanegbi, who has shown little interest in recent years in expanding settlements and has no interest in the needs and priorities of the religious-Zionist camp.
Whether one supports the development of Israeli settlements in the West Bank or opposes it, the incoherence should frustrate. The handover to Hanegbi undermines the ministry’s raison d’etre.
It’s a similar story with the rotation posts Netanyahu offered to some ministers. Miri Regev, for example, will serve as transportation minister for 18 months, then upgrade to foreign minister for the next 18. Such a rotation is a recipe for inaction. In a large and complex agency like the Transportation Ministry, it can take a minister many months to develop a working knowledge of the subject matter and a productive relationship with the bureaucracy. A minister who is slated from the start to leave after 18 months is a minister who will be largely ignored by the ministry staff for the duration of their term. Reforms won’t advance. Budget fights — where the political echelon is especially useful — will go unfought. Things will stand in place.
The public criticism should be focused on these points. There is nothing new or necessarily wrong in a prime minister seeking the wise and inexpensive input of a minister without portfolio, nor in the formation of a limited number of new ministries for genuinely vital policy concerns. But when superfluous ministries are cobbled together willy-nilly to cater to a politician’s ego or to the public’s distaste for the portfolio-free politician, things start to go wrong.
Netanyahu’s cabinet innovations are worrying not for their wasteful spending, but for the willingness to undermine vital agencies of government in pursuit of political calm.