More Ministers Actually Cost Less

Like a religious ceremony that cannot be avoided, every state election in the past decade has been followed by a wave of public criticism of the bloated government and its superfluous ministers. This dispute is a symptom of one of the evils of Israeli public life - the refusal to accept the fact that democracy has its price, which is high, but must be paid. This price includes, among other things, financing the elections and the salaries of Knesset members, as well as their expenses for maintaining contact with the public and fair pensions for MKs.

Even the proportional representation method practiced in Israel has its price. Under this method, a coalition must be formed from many parties, and this requires the distribution of ministerial posts, both with and without portfolios, along with armored Volvos and offices and foreign travel and a host of aides, and this, too, is part of the price. In a country in which everything is measured according to its monetary value, a situation in which the public is prepared to pay for so many things, but not for democracy, is particularly worrying. Anyone who expects to receive democracy for free, or on special at two for the price of one, apparently does not value his democracy very highly.

Above all, neither Ehud Olmert nor Amir Peretz is to blame for the big government. Rather, it is the direct result of the manner in which the votes were divided in the elections. The responsibility therefore mainly rests with us, the voters. When voters granted the ruling party, Kadima, just 29 seats, and spread their votes among many small and medium-sized parties, they were actually dictating a huge cabinet, with one minister for every three seats. That is the rule - the smaller the parties, the larger the cabinet. When the parties are big, the cabinet can be small. In practice, we create an impossible reality for the politicians, and then come and complain.

If Yisrael Beiteinu stays out of the coalition, Olmert's government will have 23 ministers - definitely a normal government in comparison with the past decade. The bloated government is therefore no surprise. It was actually completely expected. What was surprising was Olmert's courageous decision not to appoint deputy ministers.

A reminder: In 1981, a quarter century ago, Israeli voters gave the two big parties 95 seats, constituting 80 percent of the Knesset. In that situation, there was no problem setting up a small government, with no need to buy parties with a lot of positions. Indeed, the late prime minister Menachem Begin's second government had just 18 ministers. 20 years later, in 2001, when Ariel Sharon established his first government, Likud had just 19 seats. That is one of the reasons he needed a government with 26 ministers.

The assumption that in Israel's electoral system, the number of ministers reflects administrative or governmental needs is totally baseless. It is reasonable to assume that 10 to 15 ministers could manage the state's affairs very well. The number of ministers reflects the political need and represents a compromise that allows the government to be more or less stable. If Olmert were to switch from a formula of 3 seats per minister to 3.5 seats, Kadima would have only 8 ministers and Labor only 6. The senior officials in Kadima and Labor would make Olmert's and Peretz's lives miserable (even now, Peretz is having no easy time). These two men's political difficulties are not their own private problems: Such difficulties can seriously harm their ability to rule. A bloated government is therefore not an expression of insufferable corruption, but rather a necessity.

If Israel had a presidential regime, the president could set up a cabinet with 12 professional ministers. But Israel has a parliamentary regime, and it is better this way. Even a parliamentary regime can pass a law limiting the number of ministers. We have already had such a law. The Basic Law on Government, during the days of the direct election of the prime minister, stated that the number of ministers could not exceed 18. Ehud Barak's government had to cancel that restriction because political life is stronger even than Basic Laws.

The most erroneous and unfounded contention is that more ministers mean wasted money and unnecessary expenses. In reality, Finance Ministry officials should be praying that the government stays big and stable. After all, the bureau of a minister without a portfolio costs a few million shekels. But if the government starts to crumble, buying parties that will support it will cost a lot more - hundreds of millions and perhaps even billions. This is another rule: When the government is big, the extortion capabilities of its partners are small. When a government is small, extortion knows no bounds.