Government Reform / Haaretz Review: Israel's Ministers Last Just 16 Months

It is not by chance that the most ambitious initiative for reform in a government ministry in recent years, that of the Dovrat commission, came from former education minister Limor Livnat. Livnat lasted almost five years on the job, and that is practically an eternity in local terms. In the end she was unable to push the reform through. The fact that, as finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu managed to pass a revolutionary economic plan despite serving two and a half years in his post can only be considered an economic and organizational miracle. Even his two and a half years are quite a lot in Israeli terms.

Since the establishment of the state there have been 31 governments and 17 Knessets, meaning that each government served on average less than two years. Over the past 10 and a half years there have been five governments and four Knessets. However, Zevulun Orlev, a former welfare minister and director general at the Education and Religious Affairs Ministries, says the situation is actually far worse, since a coalition's makeup frequently changes in the course of a governmental tenure.

Haaretz has found that the average ministerial tenure in the past decade (since the formation of the Netanyahu government in June 1996) has been 16 months. The Ministry of Infrastructure was headed by 11 ministers over this period (each for 11 months on average). It seems like the more a ministry must deal with lengthy processes and the more it requires a long-term policy, the shorter the average tenure of its ministers. The Finance and Foreign Ministries went through nine ministers each. Another area that requires long-range planning is transportation, and there, too, the minister changes every 14 months.

The two consecutive governments of Ariel Sharon provided the longest ministerial terms. Tzipi Livni served five years and two months as minister of immigrant absorption. Sharon served one month less than Livni, as prime minister, and Livnat was education minister for four years and 10 months. Despite her accomplishment, the average term for an education minister in Israel in the past decade has been 18 months.

In other words: In a state where a government's actual term turns out to be just two years, a minister who lasts five years is a genuine veteran.

The Defense Ministry has seen relative stability in the past decade: six ministers, for an average term of about 21 months. That is the amount of time a minister has for planning Israel's defense policy. Shaul Mofaz had a relatively long tenure: three and a half years.

"This means there can be no long-term planning," Orlev says. "Others do not plan and you do not plan. Even if you make plans, nothing comes of them, because a new minister and new director general arrives and each wants to reinvent the wheel."

Former Shas party chairman Aryeh Deri was director general of the Interior Ministry and later headed it. "No commercial firm could operate without a clear, controlling shareholder. You don't know how much time you've got," he says. "There is a sense of transience. Act fast. Do it quickly. There is no stability."

What is the solution? Orlev suggests strengthening the status of prime minister by increasing the majority needed to topple a government. He strenuously objects to Avigdor Lieberman's current proposal to switch to a presidential regime with professional ministers. Deri, however, enthusiastically supports Lieberman's proposal. He is in favor of directly electing a president, who will appoint ministers as in the United States. The president would have all powers except legislation and budget approval - and the knowledge that he will be able to work in peace at least for a term. "That way," Deri says, "he will know he can plan."

Directors general last longer than ministers, but only slightly. The average tenure for a ministry director general is 21 months. The Prime Minister's Office had seven of them in the past decade, or a different one every 18 months. Most ministries had 6 directors general during this period, or one every 21 months. That is also the average at sensitive ministries like Foreign, Finance, Infrastructure, Industry, Trade and Employment, and Public Security. In other words, there is really no director general who can preserve continuity when ministers change at a dizzying rate.

The sole standouts are ministries where the directors general are professionals who developed from within the system. But even the exceptions are a highly relative matter. The Defense Ministry had five directors general during the last 10 years, which means the person in that post changed every 25 months. The ministry enjoyed impressive stability when Amos Yaron had the job for six years, from 1999 to 2005.

The Health Ministry had four directors general, who were replaced every two years and seven months. The Justice Ministry holds the record for stability in the last decade: three directors general, who changed every three years and five months. Aharon Abramovich stayed in the post for four and a half years.

Ostensibly, when one minister is replaced by another from the same party, there is no reason for the director general to be replaced as well. In practice, says Prof. Yitzhak Gal-Nur of the Hebrew University and Van Leer Institute, the ministers appoint people to this position not according to the criteria of professional ability or shared views, but rather loyalty. So the directors general change almost as quickly as ministers.

Orlev believes the solution is to bolster the post of deputy director general and to make him or her chief of the professional staff and the one responsible for maintaining stability and continuity. Gal-Nur thinks the solution is to make director generalships a professional rather than political appointment, and to appoint people to the posts for lengthy terms - independent of the ministers' tenures. According to him, there is no need for a director general to be a political "loyalist" since the civil service is in any event much too obedient vis-a-vis ministers.