Time for professional ministers

The coalition process guarantees that cabinet positions are given to politicians who have no experience in the relevant fields.

Katamon 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Katamon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
With the results of the elections now final, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will presumably form a coalition government.
Most folks will view this process as the lowest level of political horse-trading: “V for V”; “Votes for Volvos.”
More charitable commentators will note that the formation of a government, like any negotiation process, requires the various participants to compromise on some of their positions for the greater goal of “getting the deal done”; in this case, to create a stable body that can lead the Israeli populace through the complex future which awaits us.
Whether one takes a cynical or optimistic view of the process, one thing is certain: The coalition process guarantees that important cabinet positions will be given to politicians who have no experience in the relevant fields or, even worse, are totally unqualified for any management position.
It is interesting to contrast the Israeli process with that of the United States. Let us look at some of the significant ministries and see how the most senior positions at these offices are staffed in the two countries.
It is quite clear that one of the crucial issues in the recent elections was the question of affordable housing. The so-called popular revolution last year was based on this issue and it featured prominently in all of the political campaigns.
On the eve of the elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a last-minute attempt to be seen as the one who would lower housing costs, announced that Moshe Kahlon would serve as head of the Israel Lands Authority. The argument was that just as Kahlon had brought about a stark reduction in cellular telephone costs, he would oversee a reduction in housing costs.
Who will be the next housing minister? While it is not clear at all that Shas will be part of the new coalition, it has “controlled” the Construction and Housing Ministry for the past four years. Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias, who previously served as communication minister, has absolutely no secular education.
(As one pundit put it: Israel is the only country where the communication minister does not have a television in his home.) Prior to taking the position of housing minister, Attias’ main connection with the housing shortage was his conviction for illegally expanding his own home without a building permit and then failing to act in accordance with the demolition order.
On the other hand, the United States secretary of housing (“HUD”) is Shaun Donovan, who was the head of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, deputy assistant secretary of HUD, and holds masters degrees in public policy and architecture from Harvard.
Let’s look at the Transportation Ministry, currently headed by Yisrael Katz. Katz is one of the ministers with an academic degree – in International Relations from the Hebrew University.
He began his political career at the university as part of the Herut faction, where he spearheaded violent demonstrations and even detained the rector of the university in his office as part of a protest. For these actions, he was suspended from the university.
Katz previously served as agriculture minister, where he was the subject of a scathing report for appointing a chairman of the public committee on milk pricing an individual who did not have an academic degree, in defiance of a specific government decision.
In that same year, police recommended the filing of an indictment against Katz for alleged appointment of political cronies to senior positions and improper contracting by agencies of his ministry. The case against Katz was closed because of evidentiary problems, but several of his allies were indicted on related charges. He has been transportation minister since 2009.
In the United States, the secretary of transportation is Ray LaHood, who served for five years on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
LaHood was clearly a political appointee – he is a Republican who supported McCain against Obama. The appointment of an individual with substantial experience as secretary of transportation was a bipartisan gesture to bring a professional, experienced individual into the post, notwithstanding his political affiliation.
The analysis could go on. For example, the secretary of commerce of the United States is now Rebecca Blank, who holds a PhD in economics from MIT, and was a member of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Our minister of industry, trade and commerce was a social worker and farmer.
The above is not to say that all or even any of the members of the Israeli government who head government ministries are incapable or incompetent.
Indeed, many of them are highly qualified and skilled individuals. Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, who was one of Israel’s leading lawyers, is a prime example. (When he was previously appointed to a cabinet post, he was immediately indicted and resigned. A year later the court found that there was essentially no basis for the charges. Some claim that the attack against Neeman was designed in part precisely to prevent professional outsiders from taking posts away from politicians.) It may even be argued that one of the advantages of the method of appointment of cabinet ministers is that it provides government members with a wide range of experience and conversely provides the government with a wide range of views. For example Amir Peretz has served in positions ranging from chairman of the Histadrut Labor Union to defense minister, notwithstanding that he lacked any education or experience in either area. Sometimes, the fresh view of a garlic farmer/social worker is useful in matters of international defense policy.
Having said that, if the American experience is a guide, it can safely be argued that appointing non-political, professional, experienced, skilled and highly educated individuals to cabinet positions could be of benefit to the government and the populace in general.
Yair Lapid and other new politicians have called for limitations on the number of cabinet posts to be created. Let us see if they, together with the prime minister, can take the plunge and go one step further: appointing professionals – as opposed to political hacks – to these senior positions.
The writer is an advocate and attorney at law.