Too many ministers

A whopping Knesset majority voted last week to re-impose size limitations on the government.

cabinet meeting 88 (photo credit: )
cabinet meeting 88
(photo credit: )
It passed almost unnoticed, but a whopping Knesset majority -78 to 7- voted in first reading last week to re-impose size limitations on the government. Should this re-legislated Basic Law survive the second and third readings, it'll restore the 1992-2001 status quo ante, before the repeal of the requirement that a government must include a minimum of eight ministers but not exceed 18. That Basic Law was in force in 1999 when then-premier Ehud Barak disregarded it and appointed 25 ministers. In 2001, his successor, Ariel Sharon, succeeding in pressing the Knesset to pass an amendment lifting all restrictions. At the moment Ehud Olmert's government numbers 25 ministers, but is expected to be expanded under Olmert's announced cabinet reshuffle plan. The revived Basic Law will clearly not pass all readings in time to bind Olmert. We can only hope, however, that it serves as a powerful expression of public sentiment and overwhelming parliamentary opinion in favor of trim, functional, efficient and cost-effective government, rather than the expediently expandable variety. Perhaps the most encouraging message Olmert can send Israel's increasingly despondent and cynical citizenry would be advance compliance with the previous and, we hope, future Basic Law. There could be no greater signal of respect for the desires of the populace and no greater antidote for the current overdose of sleaze in high places. All too many existing ministries are artificial and superfluous creations. If the Ministry for Strategic (Iranian) Threats and the Ministry for Pensioners were to disappear today, they'd be as unmissed as the unlamented ministries of the Arts, Technology, Economics, Religious Affairs, Jerusalem, Regional Cooperation or Diaspora Affairs. Even the Infrastructure portfolio was a synthetic and patently unnecessary concoction. Tourism wasn't badly served via the Trade and Industry Ministry and Internal Security did no worse under Interior Ministry auspices. There's no objective justification for independent Communications or Environment portfolios either. These are all examples of the spendthrift inventiveness to which our politicians resort -at our expense- to satisfy extortionist demands from coalition partners and thereby secure parliamentary majorities. It's regrettable that legislative constraints are indispensable for curbing such shamelessly opportunistic inflation in unquestionably redundant ministries, which devalue all ministerial designations. It's altogether sad that the original 1992 Basic Law was so callously revoked and that it must now be returned to the set of Basic Laws which constitute something akin to Israel's transitory or informal constitution - the most binding regulations for our national game. Indeed, former chief justice Aharon Barak assigned superior status to the Basic Laws passed from 1958 onwards. The present government and its direct predecessor hadn't complained when this legal interpretation suited them. Yet this same government is now set to imperiously tamper with Basic Law 3, compiled in 1964, because its clause 7 clearly stipulates that a president must be elected by a secret ballot of MKs. Thus far, said Basic Law offended no one, until the accepted method of electing the president was deemed detrimental to Shimon Peres's prospects. Aiming to change the rules mid-race, Olmert is reportedly leaning hard on all coalition members to amend Basic Law 3/7 to an open vote by acclamation on the assumption that enough MKs would prefer not to be seen voting against Peres. The 1964 legislation meant to protect individual MKs from precisely such pressure, especially from party bosses. More important, though, is the overt contempt for the very Basic Laws which the judiciary treats as a veritable constitution, whereas the government is ready to dump them as soon as they hinder the interests of the moment. Especially at this juncture, when confidence in our elected officials is arguably at an all-time low, it's essential not to make a bad situation worse - not to ditch inconvenient Basic Laws and not to enlarge an already grossly oversized cabinet. Indeed, streamlining the cabinet can infuse new confidence in civic hygiene standards. By evincing determination to promote a leaner and cleaner government, Olmert will incontrovertibly boost dangerously sagging faith in the national leadership. In these disconcerting times this would be a welcome contribution towards the conservation of Israel's moral, political and social fiber.