The politics of musical chairs and job placements

I’m torn between trying to remember who is minister of what and taking bets on how long any of them will remain in their posts.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu greets Blue and White leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset after the government was inaugurated on May 17 (photo credit: ALEX KOLOMOISKY / POOL)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu greets Blue and White leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset after the government was inaugurated on May 17
(photo credit: ALEX KOLOMOISKY / POOL)
The newly inaugurated government is inspirational. It’s inspired no end of jokes. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled name after name and title after title out of his magician’s hat, I joined those waiting to hear who would be appointed Minister of Silly Walks, in the spirit of one of the best known Monty Python sketches. The “Zehu Zeh!” satire show produced a crude-but-funny skit in which ministers were giving portfolios with responsibility for various rude gestures. The skit will likely have a longer life span than the government.
This was not so much politics as the art of the possible as the art of anything goes. Take David (Dudi) Amsalem, whose new titles include ministerial liaison to the Knesset and the minister in charge of the National Cyber Authority, the Digital Israel project, the National Companies Authority and the Civil Service Commission. Ze’ev Elkin will go with the flow as Higher Education and Water Resources Minister. The hardworking Orly Levy-Abecassis will have to try to put some meaning into the mouthful title of Community Strengthening and Development Minister – which is not the same as Social Equality Minister and Minorities Minister (held by Meirav Cohen). And then there is the special role of Benny Gantz, who in addition to being Blue and White party leader now officially heads the Alternate Prime Minister’s Office and the Defense Ministry. Without belittling the huge security challenges – including cyberwarfare, rockets, and terrorism – Gantz is likely to face as many political battles as external threats.
Friends joined in the fun by creating their own titles: Minister of Lokschen and Cholent; Minister for Possible Zombie Invasion Affairs and Minister of Sarcasm. I was reminded of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Lord High Everything Else in the Mikado.
As Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid noted in his inaugural address as leader of the opposition, there are now enough government members – 34 ministers and seven deputy ministers, and still counting – to place one at the bed of every Israeli coronavirus patient being ventilated.
I’m torn between trying to remember who is minister of what and taking bets on how long any of them will remain in their posts. It appeared to be a perverse game of musical chairs and I wonder what music will be playing when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu carries out his rotation agreement with Gantz. In fact, I’m wondering whether he’ll carry out the rotation agreement in November 2021. I’m sure Gantz has similar doubts. This was clearly a marriage of inconvenience.
Several ministries have been created in the past – and not all of them redundant. The Environment Protection Ministry, for instance, was formed for Roni Milo, to protect the government in 1988, and it’s no secret that the Intelligence Ministry was created for Dan Meridor. But there was a certain cynicism to the latest creative ministerial combinations and it was interesting to see who got a government position and who didn’t. The Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi, for example, squeaked in so last-minute that his title remains minister-without-portfolio. The extremely able Avi Dichter had to settle for being head of a previously non-existent Knesset committee.
Yamina head Naftali Bennett proved himself as defense minister in the war on coronavirus, swiftly turning empty hotels into IDF-run quarantine centers and using soldiers to distribute food to the housebound. Netanyahu’s younger rival from the Right nonetheless found himself in the opposition along with Lapid, Yisrael Beytenu and the Joint List. Ayelet Shaked, who earned grudging admiration even from political rivals for being able to get things done as justice minister, is also no longer in a position to carry out the reforms that Netanyahu himself, ahead of his trial, said were necessary.
What are we to learn from the lack of enthusiasm for the Education Ministry portfolio that Yoav Gallant finally accepted? And why was the so-vital Health Ministry in such low demand? Yuli Edelstein desperately wanted to keep the Knesset Speaker’s position and prestige, probably as a stepping stone to the President’s Residence. Edelstein’s first move in his new role was a popular one: In light of the intense heat wave, he (theoretically temporarily) lifted the requirement for face masks to be worn in public places.
United Torah Judaism’s Ya’acov Litzman hopes to build a better future by moving from Health to the Construction and Housing Ministry. Coronavirus gave rise to distressing anti-haredi sentiment, as ultra-Orthodox Jews were clearly identifiable when they defied regulations. That hatred has to be healed, not further exploited for political purposes.
It’s possible that Netanyahu gave Israel Katz the Finance Ministry not to praise him but to bury him. However, resilience is the middle name of the Start-Up Nation. Israelis are so used to having to bounce back from emergencies that the term “return to routine” – Hazera lashigra – has its own acronym: “Hazlash.” Much will depend on how the finance minister spends money or saves it and on the upcoming budget.
Gabi Ashkenazi as foreign minister needs to work hard to restore the ministry to its former glory. The role of good old-fashioned diplomacy came to the forefront as the ministry arranged to rescue stranded tourists when borders closed around the globe and cooperated on obtaining and sharing information and equipment.
The big question is whether this big government goes ahead and extends sovereignty to Judea and Samaria, or at least the places well within the Israeli public consensus such as the Jordan Valley, Ariel, Gush Etzion and Ma’aleh Adumim. Will Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas follow through with his oft-voiced threat to cut all ties with Israel – including security cooperation – even at the risk of a Hamas takeover? How will the Jordanian monarch, who relies on Israeli water and secure borders, respond? More important than who will be living in the prime minister’s residence (or alternative prime minister’s residence) in Jerusalem in 2021 is who will be residing in the White House.
Curiously, at this crucial time, it was decided that Gilad Erdan should replace not one but two ambassadors: at the UN and in Washington. In the UN, he’ll have to deal with the sovereignty issue and in Washington with pressure for Israel to loosen its ties with China. Both should be full-time jobs.
The new Immigration and Absorption Minister – Ethiopian-born Pnina Tamano-Shata – might find herself handling a wave of immigrants from the West. There are already signs of an upswing in the number of Israelis returning after years abroad and increased interest from Jewish communities hit by economic woes and antisemitism. It remains to be seen which of the many mini-ministries will offer a helping hand and how accessible will that aid be when the ministers themselves don’t know what their jurisdiction is.
Wags cruelly quipped that Nir Barkat has the title “Former future finance minister.” He left the job of Jerusalem mayor for national politics, where Netanyahu appeared to be offering him the treasury. Currently he has no ministerial title, not even an invented one. That’s not how he expected to celebrate Jerusalem Day today.
Ironically, the importance of mayors has increased in the age of coronavirus: Several times it has been the head of city hall who has ultimately decided when to open schools and how, for example. They are also influential in determining matters of religion and state, such as public transport and the opening of stores on Shabbat. The mayors have stepped into the vacuum left when the politicians were busier politicking than legislating.
It remains to be seen whether the size of Israel’s 35th government will make it stable enough to take bold steps, or whether every move will be stalled by internal struggles.
I fear this is not a case of the more ministers, the merrier. The joke’s on us, the taxpayers.