Analysis |

In Israel's New Government, Ministries Are Disposable Goods – Use Once, Throw It Away

The crude sacking by Miri Regev of her ministry's director general was just one example of how this isn't politics as usual

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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New Transport Minister and Likud MK Miri Regev, Ramat Gan, February 29, 2020
New Transport Minister and Likud MK Miri Regev, Ramat Gan, February 29, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

Before Israel’s 35th government was sworn in and she was officially appointed transportation minister, Miri Regev was in touch by telephone with the ministry’s director general, Keren Terner Eyal, to notify her that she was fired. To add insult to injury, Terner Eyal happened to be on maternity leave when Regev chose to phone.

Regev wasn’t slow in responding. “Let’s put an end to the spin and the lies,” she said on her Facebook page. “It’s an established fact that every minister who takes a new portfolio names a director general that he or she can rely on who can advance his or her worldview.”

Bibi swears in his colossal coalition and readies for a courtroom showdown Credit: Haaretz

Regev was right in calling for an end to the spin and the lies. It is not accepted practice at all to fire a director general or any other employee by telephone, especially a worker on maternity leave. Good managers don’t humiliate their subordinates even when they have to let them go.

In addition, it’s not accepted practice that every new minister appoints a confidant as director general. To the contrary, serious ministers, those who plan to accomplish something, don’t rush to dismiss a director general with experience and qualifications. They know that if they are going to be effective in their work, that’s the kind of No. 2 that they will need.

The best example of that is Ayelet Shaked, who was one of Israel’s most effective justice ministers. When she took over the ministry, she kept Emi Palmor as director general. He was a professional, even though he had been appointed by a leftist justice minister (Tzipi Livni) and wasn’t regarded as part of Shaked’s national-religious camp.

Bezalel Smotrich, when he was named transportation minister, chose to keep Terner Eyal on the job. Smotrich is no less a man of the right, and a settler and provocateur to boot, but during his 11 months at the ministry he used his post to advance policy. He came to work and needed a director general who could make it happen.

MK Bezalel Smotrich, February 3, 2020Credit: Ilan Assayag

In contrast to Regev, Smotrich went out of his way to praise Terner Eyal this week after she had been dismissed. “Behind the engine of government stand excellent and dedicated civil servants. The best of them is Terner Eyal … whom it was my privilege to work with and learn from her the secrets of the ministry,” he said.

Smotrich and Regev are both people of the right, but only one sees himself as a public servant. Smotrich came to work and needed a network of professionals to do that.

Regev took over the Transportation Ministry as an 18-month waystation on the way to better things as foreign minister. She doesn’t plan to accomplish anything. So she crudely fired the director general and put in her place someone without any knowledge or experience in transportation or government administration.

It’s a sad joke. Transportation is one of the biggest, most important ministries in Israel, with a budget in the tens of billions of shekels and hundreds of infrastructure projects in its purview, including the giant Tel Aviv Metro project. It’s a ministry that takes years for any minister to fully master even with the help of a professional, experienced director general.

Yisrael Katz, her predecessor in the job, built a political career over the last decade as being “Mr. Transportation.” No one can achieve anything in a ministry of its size and scale in a term of 18 months. Anyone who announces at the outset of her term that this is how long she plans to say is sending the message that she plans to do nothing but waste the taxpayers’ money.

Regev's predecessor as transport minister, Yisrael Katz, Jerusalem, March 1, 2020Credit: Moti Milrod

There’s a bigger message arising from Regev about how low the status of a minister in the Israeli government has fallen. The politicians who fill some of the country’s most important and influential posts see their jobs as disposable goods to be used once and thrown away.

Some of them, like Regev, are willing to say this publicly, which only reinforces their frivolous image. Even if she planned to achieve something, she won’t succeed. Who, after all, is going to take serious the policy plans of a minister who’s going to be on the job for such a short time? Together with an inexperienced director general, she’ll learn that the lack of respect she shows will boomerang back at her from the ministry’s bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, Regev is not the only one. A large share of Kahol Lavan ministers come with good intentions but little or no experience. It’s okay to give new people a chance, but why as cabinet ministers?

The job of minister should go to someone with a rich political background, management experience either in the private or public sector, or at least relevant professional experience. Someone who doesn’t bring any of these to the job should start their learning curve at a low-level post before they go big time.

To their credit, no one in Kahol Lavan is suspected of bad faith. The more serious problem is the phenomenon Netanyahu has created over the past five years, that of ministers with bad intentions – ministers who come to office without any intention of accomplishing anything or even come with the intent of destroying.

The first of this new breed of minister was Amir Ohana. In contrast to Smotrich, Ohana dedicated his short time at the Justice Ministry to undermine it and its professional staff. You have to acknowledge that he was effective; his reward is now the Public Security Ministry and control over the police.

No one suspects that Ohana is starting his new job with the intention of strengthening the police; the only question is what kind of damage he can do. The answer appears to be relatively little – the Israel Police is an independent body over which the minister has little authority. The decision over who will be the next police chief was given to Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz to decide.

Still, Ohana retains some power – over the police budget and appointments of senior officers. In the latter case, the minister’s approval has traditionally been a formality. The fear is that he will use his power to deter promotions for professional and honest officers in favor of ones who are more pliable.

Another source of worry is Netanyahu’s gaining control of a huge number of appointments by putting the Government Corporations Authority and the Civil Service Commission under the control of his crony, David Amselem. More than a few people fear Amselem will use his power to fill government posts with yes-men answerable to Netanyahu. Gantz may become prime minister in 18 months only to discover he has no real control over the instruments of government.

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