The first thing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should do in his talks with potential coalition partners is to state categorically that, regardless of how many parties he needs to get him beyond the 61 Knesset seats, he will not change the law which was introduced in the last session limiting the number of ministers to 18.
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There are many prices to be paid for democracy, but the wasting of public-sector resources, especially in a country where the gap between “haves” and “have nots” has become one of the largest in the world, and where at least two of the major political parties – Yesh Atid of Yair Lapid and Kulanu of Moshe Kahlon – have campaigned on an economic-social platform aimed at managing the country’s scarce resources in a more efficient and equitable manner.
There is no justification for parties such as Yisrael Beytenu or Bayit Yehudi, both of which suffered a major, 50 percent drop in the number of seats they will have in the next Knesset compared to the last, insisting that they receive three ministerial positions each – ensuring a minister for every two to three Knesset members. Netanyahu should ensure that the distribution of ministerial positions is proportional to the number of seats each party has obtained, but should limit this to a much lower number, in order to ensure that many millions of shekels will not be diverted into new ministerial offices, advisers, secretaries, travel budgets and higher pensions. If the parties really believe in social and economic responsibility, then it is time to show this in a public statement of the need to keep within the limits set by the previous government.
There are other ways to send the message of social and economic responsibility to the public which the new government should consider.
On a per capita basis, elections in Israel are one of the most expensive in the world. Most of the world’s major democracies no longer have a day’s holiday for election day. Not only is there no proof that a day’s holiday results in increased electoral participation, but the cost to the country’s economy is immense.
Few countries in the world have government handouts to political parties to help them defray their electoral campaigning expenses. On the contrary, in many countries an important distinction is made between the governmental and the political work of members of parliament, including that of the ministers and the prime minister himself. Government officials are not allowed to accompany their ministers on trips to political events, while in some cases even prime ministers are not allowed to use their government cars to chauffeur them to political events, unless there are real issues of safety and security involved. In this way, public resources are not used for political and sectoral purposes, for which they were never intended in the first place.
We should also put a stop to foreign money being poured into electoral coffers. Both Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog relied greatly on Diaspora support for their election campaigns and there have also been many accusations that foreign NGOs and private donors, especially in North America, both of the Right and the Left, have poured money into the attempt to get specific political parties or candidates elected. It is time to put a stop to any form of external funding or election support – while Israel is grateful to its many supporters and friends from around the world who support universities, hospitals and many other educational and welfare institutions in this country, it should be made clear that this cannot extend to the funding of political parties or election candidates and should be banned by law.
What this would mean is that the elections would have to be low-key in comparison with recent elections, but they would be equal across the board. Party membership fees, donations – up to a maximum ceiling – from party supporters who are residents of Israel, and fee-paying activities on the part of political parties would be acceptable, but no more than that.
In a country where, in recent years, we have become increasingly concerned with the unequal distribution of limited public resources, where schools, hospitals, Holocaust survivors, wounded soldiers and a host of other people and institutions suffer from a lack of resources, where there are increasing number of people below the poverty level, and children who cannot afford the basic equipment or daily meals, it has become nothing short of a scandal to see how much public, taxpayer resources are poured into electioneering and campaigning – all in the name of the great slogan “the price to be paid for democracy.”
This does however raise a social equity issue which needs to be addressed. Parties emanating from the poorer sectors of society have far less resources at their disposal than do the establishment parties which, whether they be of the Right or Left, are managed and funded by the powerful elites and which are able to self-perpetuate in a way that new, grass roots parties are unable to. It requires some original thinking as to how to ensure that new forms of democratic participation can take place to challenge the existing political party structure, without dipping into the public purse. If the election campaigns were more limited in their scope, if political parties used their own resources to disseminate their messages through Internet, cyberspace and less costly media adverts, this would enable smaller and poorer parties a better chance of competing and getting their message across.
This has nothing to do with Left or Right. It has everything to do with economic and social responsibility, regardless of whether Netanyahu or Herzog were putting the government together. Despite the public spin about the control exercised by the Labor Party elites in North Tel Aviv, it is conveniently forgotten that the right wing has controlled this country, including the important finance and housing ministries, for most of the past 20 years, and that Netanyahu himself has greatly benefited from the funding given to him by tycoons, both in Israel and abroad.
It has everything to do with sending a clear message to the voters (including the 30% of the Israeli population who didn’t participate in the elections because they are fed up with the empty promises of politicians and political parties and the wasteful and often unethical way in which they use public resources) that they expect greater accountability and the more efficient use of resources for the public good.
Were it not for the amazing network of private charities and welfare NGOs, to which we all donate at some time or other during the year and especially in this period leading up to Passover, the poorer and underprivileged sectors of society would be even worse off than they are today. There can be no better time than now to put a moratorium on public waste for the sake of ministerial positions, and use the money to provide basic goods and food in the lead-up to Passover. The cost of one ministerial position (including all the extra personnel, office space and other expenses) can provide basic essentials for tens of underprivileged families as they struggle to meet the costs of the forthcoming festival.
Neither would it harm the Knesset and the public image of politicians if more members spent their time in the plenary and committee sessions. The television views of the empty Knesset chamber, or attendance at a committee meeting at which only three or four members of the committee bother to turn up, are not to the credit of the elected body of representatives. The fact that, immediately prior to each election, attention turns away from these issues and back to the Israel-Palestine conflict and the crucial security issues enables our politicians to avoid difficult question concerning their actual contribution to the system of governance during their period of tenure.
The big issues will not change just because there are fewer ministers and all the trappings that come with such a position. Prime Minister Netanyahu could regain a lot of his recently lost credibility among a cynical public if he was to ensure that there is a trimming of waste, and maximal use of public resources for the wider benefit of society.
Democracy does indeed have a price – but even that price has its limits.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.