Minister of incoming mail, minister of outgoing mail
Former deputy minister Yigal Bibi (National Religious Party) related this week that at his synagogue in the Gush Etzion bloc in the West Bank they are cracking jokes all the time about the new government. Among other things, they are saying that "there will be minister of incoming mail and a minister of outgoing mail."
I asked MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) which of the two positions he would choose. He said he would choose to be the minister of the glue on the back of postage stamps. Incidentally, he is slated for a real and very powerful position, chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. In the context of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's scorn for the Knesset, all the important committees have been given to coalition partners, meaning that so many members of the Likud faction will be "ministers of nothing." MK Michael Eitan, one of our best parliamentarians, has been designated something like "minister without portfolio for improving government services through computerization."
The biggest problem created by a big government is, of course, the damage to the public's trust. No reform initiated by the new Knesset speaker, Reuven Rivlin, is going to repair the damage to the politicians' status caused by the Labor Party's crawl into the government and Netanyahu's decision to appoint more than half the Likud's Knesset faction to ministerial positions.
As MK Tzipi Livni of Kadima said in her first speech as leader of the opposition, "The system hasn't been born yet that has forced a decent person to accept the title of a useless minister, and fund it from the national budget during this difficult period." So how is it possible to explain to the public the fact that Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, two symbols of integrity, have done precisely that and agreed to become, respectively, intelligence and atomic energy minister and minister without portfolio?
MK Yohanan Plesner of Kadima says that a government like this one "creates a difficult problem of apportioning responsibilities and overlapping responsibilities. How many people are going to be dealing with strategic affairs?" he asks, referring to the foreign minister, the defense minister, the minister of strategic affairs and the minister of intelligence and atomic energy.
A minister is replaced in Israel on average every year and a half, allowing no possibility of advancing long-range measures. This government is creating a new phenomenon. Not only does a minister not stay put for very long, the ministry itself can no longer know whether it will continue to exist or when it will split to create two splinter portfolios.
More than half the coalition - nearly 40 people - will be serving as ministers or deputy ministers. Together with the position-holders in the Knesset (speaker, committee chairs), in this coalition there will be two chiefs for every Indian. Former minister Jacob Edery (Kadima) explained that Netanyahu learned this strategy for maintaining the government's stability from Ariel Sharon, and has tweaked it. "Arik [Sharon] used to say, 'More ministers and deputy ministers means that everyone keeps an eye out for everyone else.'"
In every term the government robs the Knesset of between one quarter and one third of its members, who become ministers and deputy ministers. This is one of the major factors in the phenomenon of the empty plenum and empty committee rooms. Because of the acute shortage of Knesset members from the coalition, some of them (usually the energetic youngsters) are appointed to seven or eight committees, so that they have no chance of participating in most of the meetings.
The great manpower robbery of the Knesset by the government is one of the reasons for the recurrent demand to pass the "Norwegian Law," a Knesset member replacement law. Under the proposed law, in place of every minister or deputy minister the next person on the party list comes into the Knesset. If the minister resigns, the last person in leaves the Knesset. Dr. Sheila Hattis Rolef of the Knesset Research and Information Center has done a simulation of the effects the Norwegian Law would have had on recent Knessets. Under the simulation, in the 15th Knesset there would have been 83 changes of personnel (in four years), and in the 16th Knesset - 70 changes (in three years). This week a new proposal was raised for a limited Norwegian law: In each party, one minister would resign and the public will fund five more Knesset members (NIS 1 million per year per Knesset member).
The second government table in the plenum chamber has become the symbol of the big government. This table was placed there during the time of Sharon's first government (2001-2003) and then put back in storage. Outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert made such strenuous efforts to avoid returning it to the chamber that his ministers sat in chairs without armrests. The two ministers at the end of the table each sat with one leg in the aisle. But even in those conditions it is possible to fit in only 27 ministers, and Netanyahu has 30.
Former minister Yosef Paritzky (Shinui) believes that the size of a government "is of no significance. From the economic perspective it doesn't make any difference, because instead of a Knesset member's salary they get a minister's salary and their aides get a slightly higher salary." Paritzky explains that in a large forum like a government, in any case it is impossible to hold serious discussions, be there 18 members or 30. He says that "even the acoustics in the cabinet room don't make it possible to hear what someone on the other side of the table is saying," and suggests that the savory pastries department will have to prepare more trays.
The government, like the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, is an ostensibly closed forum where they talk to the press before leaking and confirming decisions that were taken elsewhere. The real work of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is done in the secret subcommittees. Likewise, the real work of the government will be done in small and unofficial forums of top ministers.