Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends a meeting of the Likud party in the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The High Court of Justice last week endorsed the government’s policy of having a prime minister who holds his own position while theoretically managing several others. In an unfortunately unclear ruling, the justices supported Prime-Foreign-Economy-Communications- Regional Cooperation Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘ s right to multitask, but suggested this would be proper for only eight more months.
Why the justices voted for eight more months of malfunctioning government must remain a mystery. But there is nothing mysterious about a country that lacks a full-time prime minister, just something absurd.
The ruling followed at least one memorable exchange, when Justice Hanan Melcer mockingly asked the state’s lawyers whether “the prime minister could hold all of the ministerial positions?” State Attorney Sharon Rothshanker replied, “Yes. Just as the law is silent about whether a child can be appointed a minister. There are no rules about this.”
It certainly was a relief to learn that any children among the cabinet are there by right. Court President Miriam Naor and Justice Salim Joubran also commented that Yesh Atid’s petition had challenged Netanyahu’s authority, not the reasonableness of his actions, and that if a new petition were filed on that issue, they would need to give Netanyahu a chance to respond to the new argument.
Yesh Atid said it respects the decision, but “on the political level, citizens of Israel must decide themselves if this is a reasonable situation in their eyes, that the country does not have a foreign minister, economy minister, communications minister or regional cooperation minister, and whether they think the prime minister can fulfill all of those jobs at once and give them the service they deserve.”
Prime ministers have held additional ministries since Israel’s first premier, David Ben-Gurion, also held the defense portfolio. Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak also had multiple ministries, but Benjamin Netanyahu beats them all.
MK Yoel Hasson (Zionist Union) has proposed a bill, destined to fail, that a minister serve in only a single ministry at a time. Hasson argues that nobody can effectively run multiple ministries without conflicts of interest, not to mention sufficient time to devote to proper functioning.
As Hasson posted on his Facebook page, one day Netanyahu is minister of education, the next day is minister of commerce and trade, then for two months is minister of regional development, then foreign minister and communications minister. “And once in a while in his spare time he functions as prime minister.”
The High Court’s ruling last week in support of multiple ministerial appointments might be related to a decision last August, when it upheld a Yesh Atid petition and forced United Torah Judaism chairman Ya’acov Litzman to become the first haredi politician in decades to accept a full ministerial role, agreeing to be promoted from deputy health minister to minister.
This welcome ruling overcame decades of an ongoing fiction that was embarrassing to a state that considers itself the only democracy in the Middle East. Under an arrangement that mocked proper governance, haredi politicians had been allowed to hold deputy ministerial positions that enabled them to control their ministries, while avoiding the appearance of recognizing the state’s secular nature.
This hypocritical charade allowed them to be halachicly absolved of the responsibility for the state’s secular decisions, while catering to their constituents; a power-without- responsibility model that threatens our democracy in other areas as well, notably in matters of religion and state. The decision to change the situation was certainly welcome, although it begged the question why such an anti-democratic arrangement was tolerated for so long.
While the High Court has now taken a bold step toward ensuring full ministerial employment, it should feel incumbent to go further and address the related and no less vital issue of ministerial overpopulation. For if the court has determined that full-time, dedicated ministers are unnecessary, if follows that a number of ministries are superfluous, if a part-time minister with other responsibilities can do the job.
Maybe the key is good time management – and hard work. When Channel 2 asked Minister of Public Security, Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Gilad Erdan why he needed three ministries, he answered that “my test will be with the public. I am known as a minister who works from dawn till dusk.”