The wrong foot

Appointing 27 ministers is a form of corruption, and starts the government off on the wrong foot.

kadima 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
kadima 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
At what point in the coalition negotiations do the parties jointly decide, "it's not our money, let's stick it to the voters"? It is difficult to interpret the decision to form a government of a minimum of 27 ministers in another manner. Such profligacy is a form of corruption, and clearly starts the nascent government on the wrong foot. The government of Binyamin Netanyahu of just a decade ago stuck to the legal limit of 18 ministers. Ehud Barak subsequently asked the Knesset to override the law, allowing him to appoint a government of 25 ministers. Ariel Sharon at one point presided over a government of 28 ministers, but he "only" had 25 at the outset.
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Now Kadima and Labor have announced that, after hours of agonizing negotiations, a breakthrough was reached when Kadima accepted Labor's demand of seven ministries, leading to 12 ministers for Kadima. Previously, negotiations had been based on a formula based on 23 to 25 ministries, of which Labor would control about five and Kadima eight. Senior Labor member Eitan Cabel reacted, "We received almost everything we wanted and even more than we expected." The same cannot be said for the voters, who will pay for this result in more ways than one. The government could well grow further to a record 29 ministers, since Kadima's other expected coalition partners - Shas and Israel Beiteinu for starters - are now demanding additional ministers as befits the new formula. The direct cost of the additional ministers and deputy ministers will not be negligible, but it could also be just the beginning. As a Kadima official reportedly complained to Ma'ariv, "Credibility was lost the moment the promise to Uriel Reichman was broken [by granting the Education portfolio to Labor], and our bargaining capability was lost when Labor was given a higher number of ministers than the originally determined formula called for, which never happened before." How will Kadima stave off the budgetary demands of its potential coalition partners now that it has caved on basic principles, such as the size of the government? Kadima is also under fire for handing the Defense portfolio to Labor leader Amir Peretz, who is not known for his security expertise. We have indeed become used to the notion that defense ministers are former generals, but this is not necessarily a good thing. However normal it has become, the phenomenon of generals shedding uniforms that they wore a short time before in order to provide civilian oversight for our military is not ideal. There are no simple formulas for the proper balance between civilian and military leadership in democracies. But civilians should hardly be excluded from leading the defense establishment. Credit, moreover, should be given to Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for retaining Tsipi Livni as Foreign Minister, rather than using this post as a coalition bargaining chip - as has happened frequently in the past. Livni, remarkably, seemed to be working diligently at her job even throughout the election campaign. It is refreshing and overdue to see a foreign minister who is neither freelancing with his or her own agendas, nor treating the post as mainly a feather to be worn in a political cap. Olmert seems to be forming a government whose center of gravity will be considerably to the Left of its predecessor on both diplomatic and economic issues. This new reality, combined with the excessive flexibility already shown in coalition negotiations, raises the concern that the government will have trouble holding the line on diplomatic demands from abroad and economic demands at home. The antidote to such early signs of weakness is for the new government to propose and seek to push through its own agenda on a number of fronts, rather than wait and react to outside forces. Internationally, this should mean seeking fundamental shift in American and European policy in Israel's favor. Economically, the government should press ahead with reforms that will increase growth while reducing unemployment and inequality. As a new party, Kadima has no laurels to rest on. It will either prove it can govern successfully and cement its presence on the political landscape, or prove that it has no more to offer than the major parties it seeks to supplant. We can only hope that the mistakes made in the Labor-Kadima agreement will be overcome, rather than become a signpost for the future.