In the Absence of Government

Israel has become a place of many voices wailing in singular distress. This week we heard the critically ill, who will find no remedies in the subsidized drug basket next year; the artists complained of the cuts that came in place of the increased culture budget promised. The handicapped demonstrated in Tel Aviv, bemoaning the coming erosion of assistance for themselves and the other underprivileged, while in the background, a chorus of university lecturers raged against the treasury's duplicity.

If we thought the teachers' strike was long, it's now clear that the faculty strike will break that record and an entire academic year will go down the drain.

Those who were not heard this week will cry out next week. And one joint cry emerges from the commotion, calling for urgent intervention by the prime minister, who alone can save the day. You'd think some all-powerful Ben Gurion were sitting in the prime minister's bureau. But it's only Olmert, who, judging by the outcry, is supposed to solve all the problems. With all due respect, what problems has he ever solved?

Ben Gurion, who was described as unique in his generation, was not unique in his cabinet. He was surrounded by people like Levi Eshkol, Pinhas Sapir, Golda Meir and Zalman Aran, who despite their admiration for the "old man," did not treat him as their nursemaid or expect him to change their diapers when incontinence struck. Each one had his or her domain, and their authority matched their responsibility. Granted, the prime minister was first, but he was first among equals.

Today, however, a minister is no longer a minister, but a person of no authority. He is a mere aide. The treasury considers ministers to be children. They long ago ceased to be an address for the troubled. Artists ignore Raleb Majadele; the handicapped don't appeal to Isaac Herzog. Professors sail around Yuli Tamir, and who even knows who the health minister is?

About three years ago, one agriculture minister decided to inoculate stray and wild animals prone to rabies, as is customary in civilized countries, in order to avoid killing dogs, cats, foxes and wolves. All he needed was NIS 3 million. But he couldn't raise even a fraction of it. The minister racked his brains and came up with a brilliant idea. He remembered that the prime minister loved animals and surely would be sympathetic to the cause. The vassal called the feudal lord who, in his generosity, donated NIS 1.5 million from the estate's coffers.

If NIS 3 million is a problem and if a minister cannot solve it by himself, and if even stray dogs need the prime minister's favors, then who needs 28 ministers and deputy ministers, with or without portfolios?

The imagination wanders like a bird to another country. It's a country without a government since its elections 220 days ago. Belgium has been making do with a caretaker cabinet and a temporary prime minister. And still, it moves. Perhaps this is not such a bad idea - no government. It's certainly food for thought, and not just for Flemings and Walloons.