Unmusical chairs

The latest ministerial shuffle is a travesty, reflective of a gov't that is hardly making the pretension of advancing the public's interest.

bar-on 88.298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
bar-on 88.298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The word "minister" connotes high status, power and responsibility. Aside from the obvious perks and trappings of the office, titles such as "finance minister" and "defense minister" carry enormous weight, suggesting that these officials dedicate themselves to managing huge swaths of our government, with implications for the lives of millions of people. And the fact is that ministers are important. Their leeway, between the authority of the prime minister and the power of the bureaucracy they supposedly command, may be limited. But even so, all ministers come into office with at least the possibility of making a major impact on their particular realm if they are able to bring to bear a fair degree of industriousness, judgement, and political skills. Given all this, the latest ministerial shuffle instituted by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is a travesty, reflective of a government that is hardly even making the pretension of advancing the public's interest. Rather than a considered exercise in matching the best leadership brains with the portfolios where they can be most effective, this is patently an exercise in shoring up, for a little longer, the survival of the coalition. The first travesty, of course, is the appointment of Haim Ramon to the post of vice prime minister. Just five months ago, Ramon was convicted of forcing himself on a woman who had asked to have her picture with him. As the decision put it, "without preparation or her consent, the accused grabbed her chin with his hand, kissed her on the lips and pushed his tongue into her mouth." This was not sexual harassment, but a crime involving force. Despite being characterized as a "kiss," Ramon committed a form of assault. It should also be remembered that the court found Ramon to have lied under oath and to have attempted to defame the complainant - to have tried "to distance himself from anything that might incriminate him, at the cost of not telling the truth." His conviction was subsequently upheld and he was sentenced to community service. The court also decided, however, that Ramon's crime did not carry "moral turpitude," thereby making it legally possible for him to return to high office. Moral turpitude is certainly a matter of interpretation, which is what we have courts for. West's Encyclopedia of American Law, for example, defines it as describing "conduct that is considered contrary to community standards of justice, honesty, or good morals." Such crimes "have an inherent quality of baseness, vileness, or depravity with respect to a person's duty to another or to society in general." To the uninitiated, it would seem that misfiling taxes or not paying parking tickets would be examples of crimes that do not necessarily carry moral turpitude. It is disturbing that our own courts evidently regard Ramon's crime as not having profound moral implications, and not presenting a bar to high office. It is of even greater concern that Olmert took the court's narrow legal opening and drove a large truck through it, by appointing Ramon to what is in principle a post second only to his own. What characterizes the Ramon appointment and the ministerial shuffle as a whole is Olmert circling the wagons, using loyalty and the need to deflect narrow rivalries as dominant criteria. So Ze'ev Boim gets a promotion that sees him shuffled out of Immigrant Absorption just as he was starting to grapple with the need to ease the process by which Israeli ex-pats might return and to cut the red-tape that is exacerbating the aliya slowdown; Ronnie Bar-On, who has no expert qualification for the Treasury post, is promoted from the Interior Ministry where he was proving so effective; Meir Sheetrit is bumped up to the crucial Interior Ministry job to reduce his appetite for mounting a leadership challenge, and so, sadly, on. Our ministers, who change seats even faster than our prime ministers, barely have a chance to prove themselves even if they are able and so inclined. But why would they pour hearts and souls into mastering their portfolios, when it is clear from the outset that there is no necessary connection between skills and experience and the job they are being assigned to do, and that their time in the post is liable to be extremely brief? If anything, this latest bout of musical chairs serves to accentuate that the current coalition is sewing patches on patches, and is structurally incapable of fulfilling its only raison d'etre in the wake of the Winograd Committee's interim report: to implement that report by dramatically improving the way the government does business.