Borderline View: A flood of fictitious ministries

We have one minister for every four members of the Knesset, one minister for every 2.2 members of the coalition - surely a world record.

netanyahu at cabinet 248.88 (photo credit: )
netanyahu at cabinet 248.88
(photo credit: )
With much fanfare, Channel 2 recently began airing its political drama, Polishuk. The program, following the activities of an incompetent government minister, had - even before it was first aired - been compared to Yes Minister, the famous British political comedy program from the 1980s, and its sequel Yes Prime Minister. One only had to watch five minutes of Polishuk to understand that not only was this in no way comparable to Yes Minister, but that the latter had the right to feel truly insulted by being put in the same category. Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister were amusing and sophisticated while, according to people in the know - including the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher - accurately reflecting the intrigues of the British political system. Polishuk is a third-rate, poor performance soap opera and it is unlikely that any serious politician or political reporter would find any similarities between the program and the reality of political life here. I teach an entire undergraduate course on politics, based on an analysis of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. There is virtually no political topic, ranging from diplomacy and foreign affairs, local government, the health and education services, employment policy and budget allocations, which is not raised in one of the 38 episodes. All of these are seen through the eyes of the minister (later to be the prime minister), Jim Hacker, and his senior civil servant (known as the permanent secretary in the UK and roughly parallel to the director-general of government ministries here), Sir Humphrey Appleby. The bottom line of each episode is the way in which the Civil Service, represented by Appleby and the unchanging attitudes of the middle class, thwart any attempts at change which may be suggested by the minister. For Israeli students, used to the raw brutality of politics here, it is an eye opener to see the way in which political sophistication allows for betrayal, backstabbing and outmaneuvering, through a clever turn of phrase, the use of an understatement or through a backroom coalition cooked up in the seclusion of the private members clubs scattered around central London. Despite political change in the past two decades, the program remains a gem in its ability to portray the inner workings and ambiguities of a political system which is totally unrecognizable in any form of Polishuk, real or fictitious, past or present. HACKER'S POST in the government is the minister for administrative affairs. There was no such position in the British government, but it was decided to create a fictitious post so that there would be no suspicion that the program was aimed at any specific politician. His role was to make government more efficient and less bureaucratic, but despite all his attempts to cut down the number of public sector workers, he invariably (with no small thanks to Sir Humphrey) ends up with many more. In Israel we too have many fictitious ministries. The present government alone has more ministers than any other in the country's history. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expanded the size of the cabinet to make space around the table for the disproportionate demands of all the coalition partners - a problem which is never experienced under the two-party British system. Netanyahu was forced to create new ministries although their designated activities are more than adequately covered by the existing ministries. This leaves the new ministers with little else than an office, a director-general, a secretary, a car and a driver - all at the taxpayers expense and all in the name of the greatest excuse for inefficiency and waste, "the price we pay for democracy." What do our ministers answer when, as in one of the Yes Minister programs, a precocious teenager interviewing the minister for a school magazine asks, "What have you personally achieved? What have you actually done to make life better for ordinary people" - and Hacker is unable to respond. What indeed does our minister for minority affairs do on a day-to-day basis? Or for that matter, our minister for strategic affairs or minister of intelligence and atomic energy, when we already have a Defense Ministry, an Internal Security Ministry and a revamped National Security Council? And we also have three separate ministries for regional development - the development of the Negev and the Galilee and national infrastructures - all broken off from the Construction and Housing Ministry; a minister for culture and sport separate from the Education Ministry; a minister for information and Diaspora affairs separate from the Foreign Ministry; two vice prime ministers, three deputy prime ministers, three ministers-without-portfolio (they couldn't think of any more names), nine deputy ministers and yes, wait for it, a Ministry for the Improvement of Government Services - our own Jim Hacker in the guise of Michael Eitan. We have one minister for every four members of the Knesset, one minister for every 2.2 members of the coalition - it must surely be a world record. Ironically, the ministers in their fictitious ministries include some of the more capable and more experienced public personalities in the country - an ex-chief of General Staff (Moshe Ya'alon), an ex-university president and World Bank expert (Avishay Braverman) and an ex-minister of justice and finance (Dan Meridor) - any one of whom could yet turn out to be a future leader of the country. But such is coalition politics that some of the least qualified people end up with some of the most important jobs, and one only has to observe the unknown faces sitting around the cabinet table at its weekly Sunday meetings to see just how absurd government politics has become. In the final episode of the Yes Minister series (before Hacker becomes prime minister) he takes on an additional task - minister for the arts. When Sir Humphrey is questioned how such a philistine as Hacker could know anything about the arts, he replies: "Well the industry minister is the idlest person in town, the education minister is illiterate and the employment minister is unemployable." And there we have Polishuk in a nutshell. The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and the editor of the international journal, Geopolitics.