PostScript: A matter of culture

The number of ministries has to be cut, the deputy ministers culled, and logic applied as to how the executive handles itself.

Netanyahu cabinet meeting 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Netanyahu cabinet meeting 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
According to the Knesset website, Israel has 30 cabinet ministers, including one unabashedly called the minister for the improvement of government services.
There are also three ministers without portfolio, whatever that may mean other than bureaus, secretaries, spokesmen, drivers, cars, and a staff breaking their heads to spend the budgets that come their way.
There are two vice prime ministers and, at last count, four deputy prime ministers, each with their own contingent of advisers, spokesmen and so on, in addition to those who work in the other ministries they run.
And then, of course, we have nine deputy ministers, including the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, who was denied a formal job title when those putting together the current cabinet ran out of ideas, but ensured that the deputy Minister of nothing would have a large enough staff to do nothing with.
Luckily for the economy, however, Binyamin Netanyahu, in addition to being prime minister, is also the minister of health, minister for economic strategy and minister for pensioner affairs, saving us three ministers but, unfortunately, not the civil servants who come with them, hundreds of good folks, some seasoned bureaucrats, others political hacks getting payoffs.
Then we have a minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee, as if these were not integral parts of Israel but distant colonies that need their own administrations. Just to complicate things, the minister in charge of the Negev and Galilee is also the minister of regional development.
These two, however, should not be confused with the ministry for rural affairs or the ministry for national infrastructure, which have their own protective staffs and consider both the Negev and the Galilee as their turf. These folks, in turn, it turns out, devote most of their energy and time to making sure that the Development Minister, who has a separate ministry for the development of the Negev and the Galilee, both considered rude impostors in the development field, get nothing done.
In terms of the country’s defense, we now have the ministry for strategic affairs, the ministry of defense, the ministry of intelligence and atomic energy, the ministry for the home front defense and the ministry of internal security. This is supposed to make you sleep well at night.
In consequence we now have armies of bureaucrats running around echoing corridors, looking for threats that can make them relevant, fighting each other for pieces of the pie, and neither cooperating nor sharing information with each other for reasons of “national security.” Nothing, to be sure, is ever shared with the Foreign Ministry, regarded to be “enemy territory” when it comes to secrets, while the two vice premiers, four deputy prime ministers and nine deputy ministers, including the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, are almost all the prime minister’s political rivals and by instruction kept out of the loop.
Obviously a cabinet like this is not only horrifically inefficient, but also incredibly expensive. If one could get one’s hands on the figures, I guarantee total shock and disbelief would greet what it costs to keep the ministry for strategic affairs afloat, let alone the 29 others at the cabinet level, the vice and deputy prime ministers, the nine deputy ministers and the minions now serving them.
All this came to mind when the recent bout of gas price increases were announced. If we did not go through with them, we were told by the prime minister himself, that if gas prices were not raised and the taxes that go with them, Israel may have to cut down on the Iron Dome missile defense system that has been so stunningly successful in combatting rockets being hurled at Israel’s southern cities from Gaza.
Then, in an about face, the prime minister, probably in his capacity as minister for economic strategy, overruled the finance minister and his host of bureaucrats, but with the support of the minister for national infrastructure, dropped the proposed hike in gas prices and, miraculously, announced an increase in Iron Dome production at the same time.
The difference, he explained, would come from an across-the-board two per cent cut in the budgets of all ministries, a noble idea, but which actually translates into higher education, health and energy costs passed on to the public.
From every perspective, including efficiency, it would have been far more sensible for the prime minister to cut the number of ministries by 20 percent instead of their budgets by 2%.
But then politics is politics, and in Israel the culture of politics is all in the pay-off and power, being able to give jobs to the mates and fatten up blocs of future voters by pushing money their way. We have known forever that the religious affairs ministry and several others are there to make Shas and the other religious parties relevant. That’s fine. But when it comes to multiple agencies dealing with national security, development, it is time to get worried.
Israel’s coalition culture has brought about spending habits this country can ill afford. Fuel costs, indirect taxes and just the cost of basic food in this country, are out of control.
It is time for government belt-tightening before we get hit with more costs. The number of ministries has to be cut, the deputy ministers culled, and logic applied as to how the executive handles itself.
Until this happens, we are faced with a culture of political corruption that has lost all shame.
The writer is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. His most recent book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, received the 2012 National Jewish Book Award first prize in the history category.