Israel's Micro-ministries Benefit Politicians, Cost Taxpayers

The government could be saving hundreds of millions annually by eliminating offices devoted to strategic affairs and Jerusalem

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, April 14, 2019.
Ronen Zvulun/Pool via AP

On the face of it, Israel’s Ministry of Regional Cooperation seems an important part of the government. The minister who held the job in the previous, government, Tzachi Hanegbi, employed 13 people in his personal bureau alone, including two advisers, four aides, a bureau chief, four senior administrators and two drivers. The ministry’s director general counts a senior legal adviser, an aide to the director general, a senior spokesperson, a bureau chief and a senior administrator.

But despite its names and all its “senior” staff, the entire Regional Cooperation Ministry employs just 38 people and had a budget last year of just 58 million shekels ($16 million at current exchange rates).

That may not seem like a lot of money relative to the entire budget of 460 billion shekels last year. But Regional Cooperation is not the only micro-ministry in the government, offices with high-falutin names whose bosses get a seat in the cabinet but whose functions either duplicate what other ministries are doing or aren’t important enough by themselves to justify a full-fledged minster and a budget.

In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outgoing government there are no fewer than 29 ministries (albeit only 21 ministers due to Netanyahu holding some portfolios and others holding more than one).

Other micro-ministries include the Strategic Affairs Ministry, with 39 employees; Intelligence Affairs, with 20; Social Equality, with 97; Diaspora Affairs with 14; Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage, with 12; and the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, with 68.

In January 2018, the cabinet voted to form an interministerial committee to make recommendations within 90 days on how to reduce the number of ministries to 17 from 29. But the committee was never formed and 15 months later no plan has ever been formulated. However, according to a preliminary estimate, the savings from shuttering needless ministries could reach 800 million shekels a year.

These ministries not only cost the taxpayers money, but they often duplicate the work of other ministries and lead to turf battles. The Jerusalem Affairs Ministry’s work could easily be done by a unit of the Interior Ministry.

While the ministries themselves are tiny, the pay for their top officials is no less than that earned by officials in the big ministries. For example, the director general of the Religious Services Ministry gets the same 40,000 shekels a month as his peer in the Transportation Ministry even though the latter has 10 times the budget. The same applies to lower level jobs as well.

The uselessness of the micro-ministries is illustrated by the history of the Strategic Affairs Ministry. It was created in 2006 for Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, in order to provide him with the status and salary of a minister in addition to his job as deputy prime minister.

However, three months after he left the government in 2008, the ministry was shut down. A year later it was revived, this time to provide a ministerial post for former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon. In 2014, the ministry was merged into another micro-ministry, Intelligence Affairs, after Ya’alon took over the defense portfolio.

It was spun out into a separate ministry again in 2015 when Netanyahu was forming his previous government in order to create a second job for Gilad Erdan. Erdan had already been given the Public Security Ministry but he had placed first in the Likud primaries and threatened not to join the cabinet at all if he didn’t get more ministerial posts.

Under Erdan, the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s budget has grown immensely. Moreover, until recently, he sought to have the ministry’s spending exempt from freedom of information rules mainly with regard to its fight against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Netanyahu’s next government is unlikely to trim the number of ministries because the logic in creating them is to satisfy the demands of Knesset members for the status, power and privileges of a minister.

Ministerial portfolios are valuable currency in coalition talks, which formally got underway last week. The going rate ranges from one ministry for every five Knesset seats a coalition partner has, to as many as one post for every two seats.

Netanyahu is already facing demands from Union of Right-Wing Parties MK Bezalel Smotrich for two ministries for his party, which won five Knesset seats. Lieberman is seeking two posts for Yisrael Beiteinu (which won five seats) as is Moshe Kahlon for Kulanu (with four seats).

Netanyahu is also facing demands from his own Likud party, which increased its Knesset strength to 35 seats, for portfolio prizes. His position is further undermined by his legal troubles and widespread expectations that he will trade cabinet posts and make other concessions in support for legislation granting him immunity from prosecution.

All told, the goal of 17 ministries isn’t likely to stand a chance in the next government. The total could add up to between 24 and 26 ministers presiding over the same 29 ministries as in the last government.