Shortly after they were sworn-in as members of the 35th government of Israel, the new ministers – all 34 of them – were directed to the Knesset’s Chagall Hall for the first government meeting.
This wouldn’t be like the inauguration of any previous government. Due to social distancing, there would be no group photograph and they wouldn’t be sitting around one long table. Instead, spaced-out across the entire room, the ministers sat like students while at the front table sat “alternate prime minister” Benny Gantz at one end and Cabinet Secretary Tzahi Braverman at the other. Just one person was missing.
Benjamin Netanyahu, constitutionally a “first among equals” and nominally one of the two leaders of this new government, was giving his new ministers their first lesson.
As they waited for him in the hall, he made a full and leisurely circuit of the television and radio crews, giving interviews and doing what one reporter called a “victory lap,” swatting away aides who told him the government was awaiting.
When he finally deigned to enter the hall and sit between Gantz and Braverman, he lectured the ministers on the need for face masks and the constant washing of hands with sanitizer.
One thing was very clear: He is going to adhere to social distancing for a long time to come and those ministers are rarely, if ever, going to sit around one table. They will be divided into committees and cabinets for various purposes, but the government will be run by Netanyahu – perhaps with occasional input from Gantz and a few other trusted ministers.
For the last few days, as Netanyahu allocated the remaining ministerial portfolios to Likud members, there was much mirth in the media as the titles became increasingly outlandish. What’s the difference between the social equality minister created the last time he formed a government in 2015 and the additional new job of community development minister? Why is the Jerusalem affairs minister also in charge of “national projects,” and what on earth is the connection between “higher education” and “water resources” in another minister’s title?
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What the political reporters failed to realize was that the joke wasn’t on Netanyahu, and not even on the much-diminished ministers. Netanyahu does not want powerful ministers around him, certainly not any from Likud who could threaten his position as party leader in the future. Prominent ministers with serious responsibilities and policies of their own obscure the true purpose of Netanyahu’s government: to serve as his own power base.
There is no real need for more than 15 ministers: the government’s functions can be divided into as many departments. But Netanyahu is happy to split ministerial powers ad infinitum and ad minimum. The more ministers, the more insignificant they become. Also, the more ministers (and deputy ministers), the less troublemaking lawmakers there are on the government benches. In fact, this will be the first ever coalition to have fewer backbenchers than ministers and deputy ministers.
Netanyahu wants to make his ministers a laughingstock, his cabinet and the Knesset as irrelevant as possible, because he has long desired to transform the Israeli political system into a presidential one. And since he has little chance of doing that through legislation, he has created a de facto presidential administration where every other political institution – the Knesset, the cabinet and parties, including Likud – have all been diminished.
The Knesset is supposed to be the sovereign source of power in Israel, but it has been usurped under Netanyahu by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Upon forming a coalition, every other Israeli prime minister sought to reserve the most powerful and prestigious ministries for members of their own party. Not Netanyahu. His negotiation tactic has been to smother the other parties, his coalition partners, with the best portfolios, tying them to his government and eliminating any motivation for them to break from the coalition. His own Likud members are forced to wait until the other parties have been served and then make do with ministerial crumbs and invented titles.
That has been Netanyahu’s strategy since returning to power in 2009, and now, with his fifth government, he has taken it to the extreme. Now, with 34 ministers, not only has their power been diluted, he has also made it much more difficult for any single minister to formulate and implement major policies.
Most of the main ministries are to be held by members of other parties. The exception is the Finance Ministry, which Netanyahu plans to continue controlling through Likud’s Yisrael Katz. All spending will be regulated by the treasury’s budget department, and since Netanyahu has a veto on any government policy or legislation (Gantz does as well), he will make sure no minister becomes too independent.
Gantz will be in charge of the powerful Defense Ministry and his Kahol Lavan colleague Gabi Ashkenazi is now foreign minister. But policy on security and diplomacy will continue to be decided mainly by Netanyahu in the security cabinet. Gantz and Ashkenazi both served as Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff under Netanyahu, and will be wary of challenging his authority now.
Back in 1996, when he formed his first government, Netanyahu sought to bolster the power of the Prime Minister’s Office by forming an influential National Security Council that would give orders to the IDF and intelligence services, and moving the budget department over from the treasury. It failed, as his ministers at the time were too powerful and stood up to the young prime minister. Twenty-four later, no one questions Netanyahu’s authority and there is no need for structural changes. He is the closest he has ever been to achieving presidential powers, and since President Reuven Rivlin’s seven-year term ends next June, there is speculation that Netanyahu will bid for that job himself.
The presidency is traditionally a ceremonial role with few official powers. But there is no express law that would prevent Netanyahu continuing to wield power as president, perhaps with some amendments to the legislation. It would allow him to fulfill his deal with Gantz, who would replace him as prime minister, and he would still be the most powerful man in Israel.
And since Netanyahu’s criminal trial will be in full swing and proving a nuisance by then, what better move than becoming president – the only Israeli with full immunity from prosecution?