And Then There Were Still 250

The unification plan is important. Israel has 250 local governments, some of them absurdly small and lacking a raison d'etre.

Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit is an unconventional politician - independent, espousing original approaches, not afraid to swim against the current - but also rash and with a short fuse. Not long ago he came up with a plan to reduce the number of local governments. He proposed merging 69 communities into 27. Everyone knows, after all, that the country has too many local governments, wasting public funds for the sake of unnecessary jobs and money-gorging administrations.

But only a month later Sheetrit backtracked. There will be no mergers and no economizing. Sheetrit explained that he had encountered "a front of ministers and MKs from the entire political spectrum, and it turns out that politicians are afflicted with shaking knees at the moment of truth."

And what about Sheetrit himself? Who should have known better than he that the mayors and local-council heads would object to the plan? Who better than he remembers what happened in 2003, when he was a junior minister in the Finance Ministry. At that time, after long preparatory work, interior minister Avraham Poraz submitted a plan to merge 80 local governments into 34. That plan would have saved the treasury hundreds of millions of shekels, which would have gone to more important things than salaries for heads of local governments and superfluous departments.

But the local-government heads rose up against the plan. In a discussion on the subject held by the Knesset Finance Committee, Poraz said that the heads of the local governments wanted only to keep their positions. Outraged, Abraham Hirchson, the committee chairman, reprimanded Poraz. "You have insulted the local-government heads," he told the minister, and immediately closed the meeting. Fear of the Likud Central Committee had descended on him, as on others.

Poraz, who saw which way the wind was blowing, called a press conference at which he declared: "The unification plan is dead." But the finance minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, understood that the plan's death would hurt the economizing measures in the budget. So he came to Poraz's aid. The two ministers pushed through a few mergers in the Knesset, involving communities without political patrons. Still, little remained of the grand plan.

Since then, no politician dared to put forward a similar plan. Sheetrit dared. But what is daring worth if he backtracked so fast, without any achievement, without any merger?

The local-government heads like to go along with the government. Once they were supporters of Mapai (the forerunner of Labor), then they backed Likud, and now they are with Kadima until further notice, because the money is now with Kadima, and they need budgets. Let's not forget that the election campaign for the local councils is now in full swing: The elections are only nine months off, scheduled for this November.

The local-government heads are courted by all the parties. They are a key electoral force in every general election. They know the turf and control it. They are the biggest vote contractors - people who can control the votes of registered party members; hence the massive political pressure applied on Sheetrit. Hence the wish of National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) to submit a motion in the cabinet to force Sheetrit to abandon the plan. Hence the bill drafted by MK Avishay Braverman (Labor) to annul the plan, which easily won the support of more than half the Knesset.

After all, the MKs have their eyes on one goal only: how to get elected as high on their party list as possible in the primaries. The unification plan is important. Israel has 250 local governments, some of them absurdly small and lacking a raison d'etre. The populations of some of them are no larger than the populations of a few high-rises in Tel Aviv. For example, the village of Kinneret, with a population of 600, has a local-council head, a treasurer, department heads and all kinds of officials.

The unification plan will save a great deal of money, streamline the local governments and raise their standards, and integrate children from different backgrounds in the education system - a no less important goal for those who want to fight social disparities and poverty.

Sheetrit has guts. In 1993 he withstood the pressures and abstained in the vote on the Oslo Accords, contrary to the Likud's position. Nor did he hesitate to speak out against the culture of entitlements and in favor of the culture of work. "There is no unemployment in Israel, there are idlers," he said. Sheetrit was also not afraid of being unpopular when he spoke out against lowering university tuition fees for all students, without distinguishing between rich and poor.

That is also his view of the allowances paid by the National Insurance Institute: They should go only to the needy, he believes. Sheetrit views himself as a suitable leader of Kadima, and from there of the country. But to achieve that coveted goal he must do away with the image of the rash, unserious politician. He must not submit a plan to unify local governments and then abandon it just a month later.