Who runs Israel? A year of deadlock and pandemic shows it’s not the ministers
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Who runs Israel? A year of deadlock and pandemic shows it’s not the ministers

A health minister who made no health decisions, a finance minister begging to leave office — and powerful directors general setting policy in lieu of indifferent politicians

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 29, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 29, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s former health minister and current housing minister, held one of the most important posts in Israel’s government over the past four months. Decisions and recommendations that flowed from his office decided the health and financial fate of millions of Israelis as the coronavirus pandemic raged and the economy ground to a halt.

But Litzman himself, Israelis learned over the past two weeks, had almost no role in making those decisions or recommendations.

The Israeli right often complains about the country’s “governability” problem — the way elected leaders often find themselves straitjacketed by over-powerful (and leftist, the complaint goes) bureaucrats and unable to enact right-wing policies. It’s a constant refrain that even played a central part in Likud’s 2015 election campaign.

But the coronavirus crisis and the past year and a half of political deadlock, from the fall of the 34th Government in December 2018 to the formation of the 35th on May 17, 2020, have led some, including on the right, to rethink the sources of the problem. Whether it was the health minister, then-finance minister Moshe Kahlon, the absentee agriculture minister (a position held by four different people since November), or any number of other vital cabinet posts, the unprecedented events of the past 18 months have showcased for Israelis the fecklessness and irresponsibility of much of their elected leadership and the importance of the technocrats really running the show behind the scenes.

The ministers Israelis needed most were busy avoiding the hard decisions and responsibilities in the midst of a dire national emergency — and it was the much-maligned bureaucrats who stepped quietly into the breach and delivered coherent policies to deal with the crisis.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, then-health minister Yaakov Litzman, right, and Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

MIA in a pandemic

Doubts about Litzman’s role in managing the crisis began with his appearances alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at regular televised briefings on the government’s steps to combat the virus. While Netanyahu offered details about the virus’s spread or the government’s distancing measures, and various other officials discussed efforts to minimize the economic fallout, Litzman’s appearances were consistently strange and unhelpful.

He provided no information, occasionally offered aphorisms or morality tales, and led many to wonder what his role was at the decision making table. After the first few briefings, he stopped showing up altogether.

The questions about his role grew more strident after he demanded to keep synagogues and ritual baths open while other institutions were shuttering. His refusal to have his temperature checked upon entering the Knesset and the fact that he ended up contracting the virus, sending fellow ministers into isolation, helped cement the image of a man wholly detached from the fight he was ostensibly leading.

On April 5, with the crisis in full swing, one of Litzman’s closest political allies, fellow United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush, defended his party leader — by confirming his irrelevance. “The Health Ministry is of course controlled by the minister, Rabbi Yaakov Litzman,” Porush told Channel 12, “but it has a director general, [Moshe] Bar Siman-Tov, and he’s the one making the substantive decisions” — i.e., setting the Health Ministry’s policies on a national lockdown, the grounding of air travel, virus testing, and so on.

As the virus threat receded, Bar Siman-Tov, or “Barsi” as he’s popularly known, announced on May 12 he would be retiring after five years as the Health Ministry’s director general — a term extended by a year due to the lack of a functioning government.

Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman, right, and Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov visit the Central Laboratory of the Health Ministry at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on February 4, 2020. (Flash90)

The announcement drew from Litzman effusive praise for his top subordinate. Bar Siman-Tov’s decisions during the crisis were “correct and inspired,” Litzman said in a May 14 statement. He couched all of Bar Siman-Tov’s successes in the plural, as a team effort: “Throughout this period we had to make difficult decisions to lead the country to victory in the struggle against the coronavirus pathogen. With God’s help, and thanks to the ingenuity and professionalism that Barsi showed, we have succeeded thus far.”

So many were genuinely surprised when, four days later, Litzman appeared to launch a concerted campaign to besmirch Bar Siman-Tov — and to acknowledge, for the first time, his own irrelevance.

“I thought [Israel’s virus response] was panic,” he said in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster on May 18. “As soon as my director general [Bar Siman-Tov] said he fears there will be 10,000 deaths, I yelled in the cabinet meeting, in front of all the ministers, in his presence, that I disagree, that it won’t happen, that it’s an exaggeration. But the prime minister accepted that exaggeration and gave in to the director general’s fears.”

The next morning, May 19, in a radio interview, Litzman accused: “Netanyahu preferred Bar Siman-Tov’s views. I told him [Netanyahu] that we have to decide who’s the health minister. But the professional echelon developed the recommendations and took them straight to Netanyahu. Occasionally they updated me.”

It was a startling acknowledgement of what everyone already assumed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, visits the Magen David Adom’s coronavirus operations center in Jerusalem together with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, right; Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, second right; Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, left; and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, second left; on February 27, 2020. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Litzman has been roundly pilloried for his hypocrisy and for throwing his subordinate under the bus. Pundits, including in his own Haredi community, pointed out that his views about the virus threat have changed more than once over the past three months. In the early days of the crisis, he repeatedly tried to diminish concern and prevent counter-pandemic measures from disrupting Haredi communities. He demanded the government delay social distancing measures until after the Purim holiday on March 9-10, then pressured Netanyahu to exempt synagogues from the general closure orders. Then, when the death toll in Haredi bastion Bnei Brak began to climb, he reversed course and demanded a complete quarantine of the city.

But the problem is deeper than the obvious fact that he has been on both sides of the issue. Litzman’s pivot since May 18 reflects something important and widespread in Israel’s governance culture.

At the very start of the crisis, Bar Siman-Tov pointed out to an interviewer with his trademark equanimity that he fully expects to be criticized over his handling of the crisis, regardless of how he acts or the pandemic’s actual toll on Israeli society. It’s a problem innate to epidemiology, he suggested. If you take only minimal measures and the death toll spirals out of control, people will ask why you didn’t take the threat seriously. But if you act forcefully and manage to keep the death toll low, those same people, he said, will ask why you took such drastic measures for such a minimal threat. There are no easy answers, and someone must stand in the breach, make the difficult decisions and suffer the inevitable scorn.

By late March, at the height of the crisis, a survey cited in the business journal TheMarker suggested that Bar Siman-Tov’s pessimism about public opinion might have been premature. Israelis had come to trust him. Asked whether they were satisfied with his handling of the crisis, 61 percent of Israelis said they were, the highest for any official in the survey. Netanyahu was a close second at 57%. Litzman trailed far behind at a dismal 22%.

In turning on Bar Siman-Tov as the pandemic appeared to ebb (at least for the moment), the same Litzman who avoided the decision making itself now sought to avoid the after-the-fact criticism, even if it means embracing his own irrelevance.

Magen David Adom medical workers, collecting samples for coronavirus testing in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Rule of the bureaucrats

While “Barsi” ran health policy in lieu of Litzman, his colleague Shai Babad, director general of the finance ministry, led economic planning while his boss, Moshe Kahlon, was similarly checked out in the midst of a national emergency.

In January, then-finance minister Kahlon informed reporters that he would not run in the March election and planned to leave politics for good. His Kulanu party’s collapse in the polls and his own paltry prospects in Likud after his return to his former political home last year seemed to drain the ambition out of him. Like Litzman, Kahlon missed policy meetings, showed up only occasionally at the televised briefings, and was largely uninvolved in the furious debate roiling the Israeli government over how to balance social distancing with the need to safeguard the long-term health of the economy.

And on and on.

The Agriculture Ministry hasn’t had a functioning minister since January 2019, when then-minister Uri Ariel lost the National Union party’s leadership race to Bezalel Smotrich and began to plan his retirement from politics. Ariel hasn’t been an MK since April 2019, but remained minister in an interim capacity until November. When he finally left the post, it remained unmanned (technically held by Netanyahu, one of five ministries he led at the time). When Netanyahu relinquished nominal control after his indictment in January 2020, Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi got the job — again, as an interim minister largely uninvolved in the ministry’s operations. It wasn’t until May 17, with the swearing in of the new government, that the Agriculture Ministry finally got a full-fledged minister, Blue and White’s Alon Shuster.

The first meeting of the new unity government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset, May 17, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Yet throughout this period, the ministry was a leading and influential force in the Israeli economy and in the country’s public debates. It took part in dramatic decisions and policy changes, including fights over import quotas on butter, eggs and other staples, changes to fishing regulations, and the public debate over the country’s food security and reliance on food imports.

It did these things without a functioning minister — but with its respected Director General Shlomo Ben Eliyahu ably filling the gap in leadership and setting policy in the name of his absentee bosses.

So it went across a broad range of ministries. Politicians ducked out of the limelight; most played no role in the nation’s response to the virus, and weren’t even seen by the public between mid-March and mid-May.

There is a common thread that links Bar Siman-Tov, Babad and Ben Eliyahu. While the politicians jockeyed for position and failed to manage the agencies officially under their control, it was the class of top-level bureaucrats that successfully carried responsibility for the major decisions of the state.

As the May 13 edition of TheMarker put it, the virus crisis revealed the evasion that lies at the root of the complaint about overly powerful bureaucrats.

From left to right: Finance Ministry Director General Shai Babad, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 22, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

“In such unprecedented and fateful circumstances, when no lobbyist or media adviser could formulate a policy paper for them, when a decision one way or the other could seal political fates (and the fates of people generally), the elected leaders preferred to take a step back, to quiet the Facebook page and silence the tweets. Only when the moment called for leadership and responsibility in uncharted waters could the loathsome bureaucracy finally get some screen time, and one could no longer hear the complaint that the ‘rule of the bureaucrats’ weakened the elected echelon and violated the democratic balance.”

When Likud’s Miri Regev, the new transportation minister, peremptorily fired Transportation Ministry Director General Keren Terner Eyal, outgoing transportation minister Smotrich offered a response that spoke volumes.

Keren Terner Eyal, then-director general of the transportation ministry, attends a hearing at the Knesset, March 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Smotrich entered the Transportation Ministry last June as a devotee of the right’s argument against an overweening bureaucracy. But when news broke that Regev had fired Terner Eyal, he revealed the depth of the change that had come over him during his first brief stint in the executive branch.

“Behind the engine of government stand exceptional and devoted public servants, and the finest of them is Keren Terner Eyal,” he gushed in a tweet. “I had the privilege of working alongside her and learning from her the mysteries of the ministry.”

It is usually held that a new government’s policies and priorities can be discerned by looking at its political makeup. But one might learn more by digging one level deeper, moving past the posturing but often feckless politicians to the chief bureaucrats of the state apparatus — who will still be there to run the country even when the politicians, whether out of cowardice, indifference or political weakness, flee their posts and abandon their responsibilities.

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