Payoff at a Public Level

"I haven't taken any bribe. I reject all these slanders," said Deputy Interior Minister Ruhama Avraham (Likud) in the Knesset plenum last week, in response to a parliamentary question on the subject of the appointment to the government of the seven new deputy ministers. The handful of Knesset members who were present at the special recess session smiled. Some of them reacted with ridicule. "Perhaps this isn't bribery, in the legal sense, but these are corrupt appointments," said the chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK Michael Eitan (Likud).

There is no doubt that had Prime Minister Ariel Sharon needed Knesset approval to bring the seven new deputy ministers into his government, he wouldn't have got it, just as a large majority of the Knesset opposed the wasteful and ostentatious attempt two weeks ago to bring in three new ministers, a move aimed mainly at pleasing the Knesset members who had remained loyal to him.

Luckily for Sharon, the law does allow him to bring in deputy ministers without the Knesset's approval and without any limitations. When the Knesset summer session starts in May, MK Amram Mitzna (Labor) intends to submit a proposal for a law that will make Knesset approval compulsory for appointments of deputy ministers. "There is no reason in the world why the Knesset should not be asked to approve these appointments of deputy ministers who have been forced on the ministers," says Mitzna. "All of the ministers from the Labor Party with whom I have spoken have told me that they would relinquish the deputies they have been assigned, and that they see this only as a burden. In my opinion, there is no value to the appointment of the deputy ministers except as a political exercise in give and take."

For a Mitsubishi

This is not the first time a prime minister had appointed deputy ministers to his government as rewards. In 1990, MKs Eliezer Mizrahi (Agudat Yisrael) and Efraim Gur (Labor) "deserted" their parties and went over to the Likud, enabling Yitzhak Shamir to establish a coalition. In return, Mizrahi was appointed deputy minister of health and Gur was appointed deputy minister of transportation.

In 1995, Yitzhak Rabin's government needed the support of MK Alex Goldfarb (Yeud), who was serving as a deputy minister, in order to approve the second Oslo agreements, which were brought to the government for ratification. Goldfarb promised the necessary majority (the outcome of the vote was 61 to 59), but only after he was promised a Mitsubishi and a driver.

When the Basic Law on the Government (better known as the law on the direct election of the prime minister) was approved, it explicitly stipulated that only 18 ministers and six deputy ministers could serve in the government. When Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996 he acted in accordance with that law. "Bibi [Netanyahu] wanted to amend the law so that he could increase the number of ministers, but I warned him not to, and he took my advice," says MK Michael Eitan, who at that time was serving as chairman of the Likud Knesset faction.

But in 1999, when Ehud Barak was elected prime minister, one of the first things he did when he wanted to increase the number of ministers in his government was to revoke the provision in the law that limits the number of ministers and deputy ministers. "Barak wanted to increase the number of ministers from 18 to 24 for political reasons, but in the Knesset they suggested he eliminate the limitation completely," says Yahad chairman Yossi Beilin, who was justice minister at the time. Barak immediately "took advantage" of the amendment to the law and increased the number of ministers to 25 and the number of deputies to eight.

As leader of the opposition, Sharon launched a very sharp attack on Barak for his decision to increase the number of ministers and deputy ministers. In a speech that he delivered in the Knesset plenum in August 1999, he said: "Mr. Prime Minister, allow me to say to you: You have made a grave error, morally, economically, practically - this is another mistake ... Of your government it will yet be written: You bought control with deerskin chairs. You set up an inflated government. Where are you heading?"

Sharon also promised that "when we replace you in the next elections, and we shall replace you, I apologize to the carpenters who will again have to shorten this table [the government table in the Knesset plenum - G.A.] when we go back to a government of 18 ministers. That is what we will do when we replace you, and we shall replace you." In 2001, when Sharon was elected prime minister, he did not abide by the promise he had given the public and he did not amend the law. On the contrary, he set up a government that was even more swollen, with 26 ministers and 16 deputy ministers.

A waste of money

Politicians who have served as deputy ministers during the course of their career admit that, apart from in key ministries like foreign affairs, finance, defense and education, the appointment of a deputy minister is nothing but a waste of money (the cost of maintaining a deputy minister and staff is estimated at about NIS 2 million a year). MK Ran Cohen (Yahad) served as deputy minister of housing, under minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, but in December 1992, after only six months, he got fed up with the job and returned to parliamentary activity. "The real meaning of the position of deputy minister is the title," says Cohen. "The title sounds like the deputy to God and on the surface it looks more senior than the position of MK, but in actuality this is a less influential position. A deputy minister's responsibilities are not set forth anywhere and they are subject to the good will of the minister, and this is often an insufferable situation. You feel like you're a clerk."

"I was a deputy minister in the Prime Ministers' Office in Netanyahu's government," says MK Michael Eitan. "So that I would have something to do, I created for myself a framework that included dealing with the whole subject of the Internet and information technology in the government ministries, and in addition I was also the ministerial liaison between the government and the Knesset, even though I had the status of deputy minister." Eitan believes that "there is no scope for such a large number of ministers and deputy ministers. It is clear that Sharon's intention when he appointed seven deputy ministers all at once was to please the MKs who had supported him in his struggle against the group of `rebels' and helped him pass the disengagement plan and thwart the referendum bill."

Beilin (who served as deputy finance minister in the national unity government in 1988-1990) supports an amendment to the Basic Law on the Government and setting a limit of 18 ministers and six deputy ministers, as was the case in the past. "The fact that Sharon appointed so many deputy ministers in order to give them perks and treats is a corruption of the political system and it cheapens the positions of deputy ministers," he says. "This step testifies to a scornful attitude toward the ministers and deputy ministers and to the fact that he does not think highly of them."

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel has decided not to petition the High Court of Justice against the appointment of the seven new deputy ministers, because they have learned from experience that the Supreme Court justices are very cautious about intervening in the decisions of the legislative branch and the executive branch. "The fight against these appointments has to be conducted in the public sphere," says attorney Barak Kalev of the movement. "It is clear that there is no functional need for these deputy ministers. This move was aimed at pleasing political persons while charging the costs that this involves to the public coffers. ... There is no definition of this apart from payoff at the public level. Sharon has proved in this step of his that he scorns the principles of the efficient running of government ministries and appoints people who have no connection, understanding or ability relevant to the areas that have been put into their hands."