Trimming our obese cabinet

The incoming government will be the 33rd since 1948, and the average term of an Israeli cabinet minister is only 18 months, barely enough time to become acquainted with the intricacies of the job.

Yair Lapid at the President's residence 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yair Lapid at the President's residence 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Although obesity, with its contribution to diabetes and heart disease, is recognized as a drag on the economy, Reuters reports that the 2013 annual conference of the World Economic Forum in Davos discussed the subject but could not agree on what can or should be done about it.
But Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, has no doubts about how to deal with the obesity of the Israeli cabinet. He proposes a law stipulating that governments be limited to 18 ministers, each with a meaningful portfolio. At a press conference prior to the election he vowed that he would not serve as a minister-withoutportfolio in the next government and urged other party leaders to make the same commitment, adding that his commitment is binding on all members of his party. One may hope that this also applies to frivolous deputy ministerial posts.
“It is unreasonable,” he said “that the government continues to raise taxes on the Israeli middle class, and at the same time spends millions of shekels on redundant ministries.”
Lapid is not alone in decrying the obesity of the cabinet. An unsuccessful bill proposed in June 2006 by (then MK and Likud faction chairman) Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar would have cut the number of cabinet ministers to 18. Sa’ar said the bill would lead to “more streamlined, less bloated cabinets” and would “help restore public faith in the political system.”
Our first government, under David Ben- Gurion, comprised 15 ministers and no deputy ministers or ministers-withoutportfolio.
From 1949 until the 13th government of Levi Eshkol that ended in 1969, the number of ministries varied between and 15 and 18.
Article 33 of the Basic Law passed in 1992 limited the cabinet to 18 ministers, of whom at least half were required to be MKs, and article 37 limited the number of deputy ministers to eight. This law, which also introduced the ill-fated system of direct election of the prime minister instead of his/her being elected as head of a party list, was repealed in March 2001 during the term of Ariel Sharon. It was not Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu who initiated the trend toward inflating the cabinet size.
Sharon promptly increased his cabinet to 23 ministers, plus eight without portfolios, and 13 deputy ministers, making it necessary to increase the size of the cabinet table to accommodate them all.
The proposal to reduce the cabinet size makes eminent sense when one considers that the outgoing government has 35 ministers and deputy ministers, each with very costly benefits including an office, a secretary and a car with driver.
The 11th government under Levi Eshkol comprised one deputy prime minister (Abba Eban) and ministers of foreign affairs (Golda Meir), agriculture, defense, development, education and culture, finance, health, housing, internal affairs, justice, labor, police, postal services, religions, trade and industry, transportation, welfare and one minister-without-portfolio; 19 in all.
By comparison the present 32nd government has three vice prime ministers and no less than four deputy prime ministers. It would be safe to guess that very few MKs or citizens would be able to define the duties of these high offices.
Nor would they be able to explain why the former Ministry of Education and Culture has been split into two ministries; one for education and another for culture and sport. Nor why separate ministries for Home Front Defense, Strategic Affairs, Internal security and Intelligence and Atomic Energy are necessary, instead of simply one Ministry of Defense. And why, one must ask, does atomic energy not fall under the aegis of the Ministry of Science and Technology? And why do we need a separate Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs? Is this not the function of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? In addition, one must ask what duties the following deputy ministers perform in order to earn their high salaries and perks; Senior Citizens, Advancement of Young People, Students and Women, Defense, Education, Finance, Foreign Affairs, Health, Industry Trade and Labor and Development of the Negev and Galilee.
The case of Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is unusual. The Health Ministry is the third largest cabinet portfolio, with an annual budget of NIS 24.3 billion.
It is one of the largest employers in Israel, responsible for over 20,000 workers.
This ministry was reserved for the United Torah Judaism party in terms of a coalition agreement, but UTJ MKs express their opposition to Israel as a secular state by refraining from serving in ministerial positions, though a deputy ministerial position is acceptable.
When the party accepted the ministry, its top members, MKs Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman, were competing for chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee.
Gafni won this position and Litzman wound up as effective health minister, though with the title of deputy health minister and with Netanyahu acting nominally as health minister.
As I wrote in a recent article, an important proposal in Yesh Atid’s platform is to increase the voting threshold from 2 percent to 6 percent so as to reduce the number of parties in the Knesset and in the resulting coalitions. The multiplicity of parties in the coalitions inhibits consistent long-term national policies and, as with obesity in humans, has dramatically shortened the lifespan governments, whose average duration has been two years.
The incoming government will be the 33rd since 1948, and the average term of an Israeli cabinet minister is only 18 months, barely enough time to become acquainted with the intricacies of the job.
Hopefully, with the entry of so many fresh and enthusiastic young newcomers, we may look forward to some overdue basic reforms as initial steps toward more rational decision making in all spheres of government.
The writer is a retired industrialist and presently a freelance commentator on current affairs.