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There's at least one thing that Ehud Olmert hasn't inherited from Ariel Sharon - the thick elephant's skin that made him impervious to any kind of public or media criticism.
Sharon had no problem appointing no less than 30 ministers to his first government, despite having attacked Ehud Barak only a year and a half earlier for "buying power with deer hides," a reference to the fabled leather of ministers' chairs, when Barak changed the law limiting the number of ministers and allowed himself a mere 23.
This time around, 24 hours of shrill press criticism caused Olmert to spend hours trying to convince Amir Peretz to give up one of the ministers promised to Labor. (Olmert unilaterally decided to forgo one of his own Kadima ministers). So far, all he's managed to wrest from Peretz is an agreement not to include deputy ministers in the new government, aside from the one promised to UTJ, who, as a matter of principle, never accept full membership in the Zionist cabinet.
Faced by a wave of populism, Olmert quickly caved. The outcry at the emerging extra-large size of the next government - 28 ministers and at least half a dozen deputies - was only to be expected. It's a ritual that takes place whenever a new Israeli administration takes over. The opposition attacks the government over its size, despite having done exactly the same thing when it was last in power.
The media always take part by bandying around wild estimates of the astronomical sums needed to finance the extra offices, Volvos, advisers and bodyguards. The latest wild exaggeration was no less than a quarter of a billion shekels, according to IDF Radio.
Kadima Minister (for now at least) Roni Bar-On did a good job of countering this argument by saying it's a price worth paying for a stable government; the alternative could well be early elections that cost twice the sum. But the real answer should have been that all the figures being mentioned are exaggerated, since they don't take into account that all the intended ministers are already MKs, provided by the tax payers with almost the same salaries as ministers, a slightly smaller car and a few less advisers. The actual difference between their cost as ministers and remaining as backbenchers is much lower than all the numbers we've been hearing.
Populism aside, does anyone know what the best size is for a government? The smallest Israeli cabinet of the last forty years was the Netanyahu government of 1996-1999, with 18 ministers, but even among Bibi's dwindling loyalists, it's hard to find many who think it was one of the more effective governments we've had.
The decision to eliminate deputy ministers will obviously save some money and free up some MKs for parliamentary duties. Even Ronit Tirosh, who was expecting to become deputy education minister, admitted today that there were no less than four deputies during her five years as director-general of the ministry and none of them had much to do.
On the other hand, other deputy ministers have performed important functions. The elimination of their posts means, for instance, that Michael Melchior won't be deputy minister in charge of liaison with the Diaspora. In his absence, no one will fill that role. Amir Peretz will be deprived of much needed assistance from Ephraim Sneh in his onerous job as defense minister.
Also, the cost of the deputies isn't always as high as critics make out. Of course there are the Ruhama Avrahams whose main legacy is to redecorate their private offices, at the cost of six-figure bills, but there have also been deputies who made do with small rooms in distant wings of their ministries.
Neither is having so many ministers always a waste. Granted, the planned break up of the Education Ministry, designed to allow Labor's Ophir Paz-Pines to act as sports minister, will be a huge waste of money, but it's not always like that. At first we mocked Nathan Sharansky's ridiculous title of minister of Jerusalem affairs in the last government, but he proved to be Israel's most eloquent and influential spokesman abroad. That's got to be worth a Volvo and a couple of advisers.
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