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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The foremost thought on every minister's mind today when the new team takes over at the various ministries is how long he or she will hold on to the job and how best to leave their mark during that period.
Most of them will be the fifth minister in their post since 2000; a few will even be the sixth in that particular chair.
Ministers' terms rarely last more than two years, and often much less. They get shunted around too quickly to learn about the huge organizations at their command, let alone formulate and implement wide-reaching policies.
Sometimes not even a long tenure guarantees landmark change. Limor Livnat served five years as education minister; no minister stayed that long in the position since the early 1980s. She used the time to set up a task force to come up with a comprehensive plan to reform the school system, and was willing to weather a terrific barrage of criticism and personal attacks to push through the resulting Dovrat Plan.
This weekend, incoming Education Minister Yuli Tamir unceremoniously announced she was consigning the plan to the dustbin of ministerial history. Five years down the drain. Tamir at least is realistic about her own chances of effecting change in the system during her tenure.
"Whatever I sow today," she said in an interview over the weekend, "the reaper won't be the minister after me, but perhaps only two or three ministers down the line."
Almost 90 percent of the NIS 25 billion education budget goes for teachers' salaries and is virtually untouchable. Tamir might be able to make relatively small, peripheral changes in the national curriculum that could eventually produce a lot of good, but there will be no drastic improvement until the fundamental problem of too many teachers with too small workloads and laughable salaries is addressed. Livnat tried and failed, Tamir might be wise to not even bother.
The same goes for the other mega-ministry, the defense establishment, as of today Amir Peretz's kingdom. Unlike the education system, the IDF at least does its job, but it is also long overdue for serious reform.
Here also, it's questionable how much Peretz can accomplish during his term, especially as the military is already deep into its own reform plan, initiated by Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz. Peretz would be wise not to interfere with the process.
Neither will he be very influential in cutting the defense budget in favor of social programs. Any cuts will be decided on between the generals and Treasury officials. Once again, Peretz would be better off letting them get on with it.
So what do we need a defense minister for? What will Peretz do there? There are still many important decisions to be taken every day on a wide range of operational, planning and personnel matters, which have to be taken by the minister. If Peretz manages to do all that without slipping up, he will have gone a long way in bolstering his image as a leader and doing something responsible for the country.
The same holds true for most of the other ministries, even if they are much smaller than Education or Defense. Very few ministers have effected radical change in their areas of responsibility. To do that they would need adequate funding, full backing from the prime minister and the Treasury, and more than anything else, good timing. Much more often, ministers have started with grand plans and made a hash of things while neglecting the more mundane day-to-day management of events.
The 24 ministers assuming their posts today would do well to spend a few weeks mastering the system, learning how to competently and responsibly manage the routine of their offices. Only then should they think of one or two relatively small areas in which they can make improvements, and then get on with it. With a lot of luck, they might just see them through.
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