The First Test for Israel's Aspiring Economic Savior

Moshe Kahlon, who is slated to take over the finance ministry in Netanyahu's new government, must insist on an essential cost-cutting reform: Slash the size of Israel's inflated government.

Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler
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Israel's 33rd government, flanking President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. How many ministers do you need?
Israel's 33rd government, flanking President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. How many ministers do you need? Credit: Reuters
Nehemia Shtrasler
Nehemia Shtrasler

In an underdeveloped country named Switzerland the cabinet has only seven ministers, and somehow they manage to run the country. Japan, with its 130 million people, has 14 ministers in the government. Ireland’s cabinet numbers 15 ministers, and that is also the average for Western nations. So why do we need a cabinet of 22 ministers in Israel?

The size of the cabinet reached absurd proportions during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s second term in 2009: 30 ministers and nine deputy ministers. The public protested the huge waste, and Yair Lapid applied pressure, which led to the establishment of a cabinet with 22 ministers and seven deputy ministers. In addition, a law was passed requiring that the next government, which Netanyahu is putting together this very moment, number only 18 ministers and four deputy ministers. But now, once Lapid is no longer, Netanyahu wants to change the law. He wants to solve the problems of setting up and maintaining a coalition by appointing 22 ministers — so that everyone will be happy.

This is bribery. Buying power with jobs and money. After all there is no real need for so many ministers and government ministries. The entire idea is to hand out benefits to as many politicians as possible, so it will be harder for them to give up their fancy leather ministerial chairs and break up the coalition. But even that is not so. The outgoing cabinet had 22 ministers, and it still broke up after less than two years.

A cabinet of 18 ministers (plus the prime minister) is possible. In such a situation the formula for awarding ministries to the parties will be one minister for every three Knesset members. Likud will receive nine ministers plus the prime minister, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu will have three ministers and a deputy minister, Habayit Hayehudi will get two ministers plus a deputy minister, Shas will receive two ministers and a deputy, and Yisrael Beiteinu will receive two ministers. United Torah Judaism, which is not interested in ministers, will get the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee and the position of deputy health minister.

But there are other things that are important besides the number of ministers. The Finance Ministry’s budgets division has proposed a reform in the number of government ministries, in order to cut back to 18. This means combining some ministries — and real savings. The Tourism and Science ministries will be integrated into the Economy Ministry. The Culture and Sports Ministry will return to the Education Ministry. The Pensioner Affairs Ministry will become part of the Social Affairs Ministry, and the Intelligence Affairs Ministry will be integrated into the Defense Ministry. The Strategic Affairs Ministry will be turned into a division in the Prime Minister’s Office; the Regional Development Ministry will join the Foreign Ministry; and the Ministry for the Development of the Galilee and Negev will go to the Interior Ministry.

This is the first real test of Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon, who is earmarked to head the Finance Ministry. He needs to take the change initiated by his predecessor, Lapid, and leverage it into a true reform. Lapid talked about the number of ministers and their deputies, but it is more important to reduce (at the same time) the number of government ministries. That is how to make the structure of the government more efficient and logical, once all the superfluous ministries, which were established only to meet the need to supply jobs to politicians, simply disappear.

Doing away with these unnecessary ministries will bring about savings of tens, or maybe even hundreds, of millions of shekels a year. It will then be possible to cut back on the number of government employees, to reduce expenditures, and to move the money saved as a result of stopping the funding of redundant organizations and superfluous ministries for much more appropriate purposes such as education and welfare.

A manager starting a new job establishes an image from the very first day of work. Kahlon has a golden opportunity to do so now. Toward that end, he must declare that the next cabinet will number only 18 ministers, and demand to make the reform to reduce the number of ministries part of the coalition agreement.

The minute he does this, he will prove to everyone that he has come in order to fix the ills of the economy and society, and not to hand out jobs. In doing so he will make it clear that he is protecting taxpayers’ money, and will not make cynical deals. The minute he does this, he will position himself as a serious leader and not a petty politician. This is his first test.

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