How Much Are We Paying for Netanyahu's Bloated Cabinet?

Netanyahu's cabinet is so big they had to call in carpenters to make more seating for ministers in the Knesset chamber.

"There has never been such a wasteful cabinet. There has never been such a big cabinet for such a small coalition. All over the world, cabinets have been getting smaller, and in little Israel it's getting bigger. So much money has been spent on bloated government ministries."

This statement was made by none other than Benjamin Netanyahu, but he wasn't referring to his current government, with its 39 ministers, including nine ministers without portfolio and nine deputy ministers - more than half his 74-member coalition. Netanyahu's comments referred to Ehud Olmert's May 2006 cabinet, with its 25 ministers. What would Netanyahu have said if he were opposition leader and Tzipi Livni were prime minister?

Ironically, amid a global economic crisis and rising unemployment, Netanyahu reduced unemployment among politicians by putting together a monstrously bloated government. Even ministers without portfolio are entitled to eight staff members, including advisers, secretaries and a driver. The nine ministers without portfolio and eight of the deputy ministers (not including Yaakov Litzman, who serves as health minister) will cost taxpayers NIS 126.7 million a year, according to the proposed budget.

Instead of tightening the government's collective belt and convening a small, efficient cabinet, Netanyahu's cabinet is so big that they had to call in carpenters to make more seating for ministers in the Knesset chamber.

While he was finance minister from 2003 to 2005, Netanyahu spoke of the lean business sector groaning under the weight of the overweight public sector. But his own 2009 cabinet is not what one would call lean. As Livni, the current opposition leader, put it, the Netanyahu cabinet includes ministers and deputy ministers in charge of nothing.

Take, for example, Michael Eitan (Likud), the improvement of government services minister. Why do we need such a minister? And by the time he manages to get significant authority, this government will be out of office. Eitan didn't insist on a minister's bureau, and works with minimal staff, plus 50 volunteers. He even refuses to accept a driver and a government-issued Audi, preferring to drive the Mazda 6 that MKs get. This raises the question as to when he will give up his superfluous minister's title in order to offer his rich experience as a legislator.

The story is similar for ministers without portfolio Benny Begin, Yossi Peled and Dan Meridor, and Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor. What do they do exactly? Is there a functional - rather than political - justification for their appointments? All of their areas of responsibility could have been given to Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, whose ministry also could have been dispensed with. The government also could have functioned without splitting responsibility for ultra-Orthodox education - Meshulam Nahari (Shas) is in charge of Sephardi ultra-Orthodox education, while Meir Porush is responsible its Ashkenazi counterpart.

We're lucky there is only one education minister, Gideon Sa'ar, to manage state education. The country also could have gotten along without a minister of religious affairs, Ya'akov Margi (Shas); this task was managed just fine by the Prime Minister's Office. One hopes the new Minority Affairs Ministry headed by Avishay Braverman (Labor) will justify the expense.

The ridiculous titles and the unnecessary jobs cost Israeli taxpayers a lot of money. According to the proposed state budget presented two weeks ago, the nine ministers without portfolio and the eight deputy ministers cost NIS 126.7 million a year. The cost of just the nine ministers without portfolio is NIS 81.79 million, plus security costs of NIS 27 million. The cost of eight deputy ministers is about NIS 18 million for 2010, and between NIS 1.1 million and 1.4 million per minister in 2009.

Netanyahu contends "the coalition costs money," but he could have avoided these unnecessary expenses and budgeted the money to help the poor, the sick and the unfortunate instead.