MKs advance bill to expand cabinet, giving Netanyahu more coalition leeway

MKs advance bill to expand cabinet, giving Netanyahu more coalition leeway

Divisive measure would cancel 2014 law limiting the cabinet to 18 ministers; PM expected to hand out 26-28 portfolios to members of his new government

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

The Knesset plenary hall during the swearing-in ceremony of Knesset members as a new session opens following the elections, on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
The Knesset plenary hall during the swearing-in ceremony of Knesset members as a new session opens following the elections, on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Knesset members on Monday voted to advance controversial legislation that would expand the number of cabinet posts, in an effort to woo potential coalition partners into the government.

Casting their first legislative vote of the 21st Knesset, MKs voted 65 to 54 in favor of the bill to expand the cabinet from its current 21 members to an expected 26-28. The measure would cancel a 2014 law limiting the cabinet to 18 ministers that was temporarily amended in 2015, during coalition talks after that year’s election.

Having received government approval, the measure will now need to pass two further Knesset plenary votes before becoming law, a move the government wants to complete by the end of the week.

With time running out for him to finalize a deal to form a new government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to appeal to the five parties that, along with his own Likud, are vying for ministerial posts. Increasing the number of ministers would give Netanyahu additional collateral to court the parties he needs to give him a majority, while also satisfying the demands of his own party members, who are likely to miss out on key positions doled out to coalition partners.

MK Yair Lapid, number 2 in Blue and White, which is set to be the largest party in the opposition, blasted what he described as the wasteful spending required for the “unnecessary ministries.”

“We thought for a moment there that you were going to establish a government that would work for the good of the country, but you buried that on Sunday” with the introduction of the bill to expand the cabinet, he charged during the Knesset plenum debate of the bill on Monday afternoon.

Blue and White co-chairman Yair Lapid delivers a statement to the media at the Knesset, May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“We can now hang a sign in front of the hospital in Afula that says, ‘We won’t be buying an MRI machine because the money had to go to an unnecessary government ministry,'” he added.

Lapid accused Likud of seeking to establish “eight unnecessary ministries,” saying “there is no need for a ‘Ministry for Intelligence Affairs’ — you just need the jobs, the drivers, the salaries.”

Defending the measure, Likud MK Ofir Akunis, the science minister in the outgoing government, accused Blue and White of being anti-democratic, noting that unlike Likud, the party did not hold primaries to determine its Knesset slate.

“None of you, who are now [pretending to be] defenders of democracy, was chosen by anyone — and you speak of democracy?”

He rejected criticism of the expansion of the cabinet, saying few governments have adhered to past caps on the number of ministers. “The only time that the [law limiting the cabinet size] was followed in full was in 1996, in the first government of Benjamin Netanyahu,” Akunis said.

Likud MK Ofir Akunis speaks at the Knesset, on May 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

MK Ze’ev Elkin of Likud accused opposition lawmakers of hypocrisy. “There were 23 ministers in a government Yesh Atid and Yair Lapid were a part of,” he said, referring to Lapid’s party, which along with Benny Gantz’s Israeli Resilience makes up Blue and White. “And there are MKs [in the opposition] who served as ministers in a government with 30 ministers.”

With just over a week before the final May 28 deadline for Netanyahu to submit a coalition to the Knesset, negotiations appear to have stalled, and no agreement has been signed with any party. Without reconciling the conflicting demands of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties, as well as the other factions likely to join, Netanyahu will be unable to assemble a coalition of at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

After the 2013 elections, Yesh Atid conditioned joining the government on the passage of a law to drastically cut the number of ministers from the record 30 in the previous government to 18. Following the 2015 elections, however, the first opportunity for the new law to be implemented, Netanyahu passed a temporary amendment expanding it to 21. Now he wants the law scrapped altogether.

Members of the Blue and White party as well as other parties in the likely opposition have railed against measure, citing a price tag of up to NIS 300 million ($84 million) to fund the increased number of ministers’ offices, staff and expenses.

“You are stealing budgetary funds from the public who need them. Don’t pretend to care about cancer patients or others who need more help when you are taking the money from under their noses for yourselves,” Blue and White MK Meir Cohen said during a heated Monday morning meeting of the Knesset Arrangements Committee, pointing at the Likud MKs in the committee.

Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg during a Knesset committee debate on cancelling the 2013 law limiting the number of ministers, May 20, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“This is a corrupt deal being made in front of us all,” said Meretz chair Tamar Zandberg.

Blue and White leader Gantz went so far as to accuse Netanyahu of resorting to “political bribery” in his bid to woo coalition partners into the government.

“Can you believe we are going to talk today about increasing the number of ministers? This is simply another tool in the toolbox of political bribery. Its only aim is political gain. Anyone who accepts this is accepting a political bribe,” railed Gantz at his party’s weekly faction meeting on Monday, referring to the prime minister’s attempts to protect himself from prosecution in three corruption cases against him.

Committee chair MK Miki Zohar of Likud said, however, that the bill would in fact create more stability and even save money by “preventing another election within two years. That would cost billions!”

On Sunday, Netanyahu complained that his potential coalition partners were unyielding in their demands and obstructing any prospect for significant progress in talks. “Unfortunately, the parties are still at the top of the trees they have climbed,” the prime minister said at the opening of the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

“I hope that the way will soon be found to bring them down to the ground so that together we can establish a strong and stable government for the State of Israel, which will continue to lead the country to new heights,” he said.

If Netanyahu fails to form a coalition by May 28, the task could be assigned to a different member of the Knesset. If no member of the legislature is likely to be able to form a government, the country could then face new elections.

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