Only Benjamin Netanyahu knows the full range of factors that prompted him to leave ultra-loyal Likud colleague Nir Barkat — among the frontrunners to succeed him come the day, and publicly anointed by Netanyahu in February as Israel’s next finance minister — out of his ministerial team.
Only he knows why he is exiling one would-be successor, Gilad Erdan, to the U.S., to serve as ambassador to the United Nations and, maybe, bizarrely, for a few months from year’s end, simultaneously as ambassador in Washington, D.C., while naming a second would-be successor, Israel Katz, as his minister of finance, and leaving a third would-be successor, ex-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, with no senior role at all.
Only he knows why he moved another loyalist, Ze’ev Elkin, away from the Environment Ministry job and instead set up the ludicrous Ministry of Higher Education and Water Resources for him; chose Yoav Gallant over other aspirants to the post of education minister; toyed with but ultimately rejected the idea of booting Yuval Steinitz from Energy; retained ex-Kulanu minister Eli Cohen (now appointed as minister of intelligence, though not with any practical oversight of the intelligence services); created a patently absurd ministerial post of “strengthening and advancing community” for the unreliable Orly Levy-Abekasis; and resurrected another name-only ministry (of “liaison between the government and the Knesset”) for loyalist David Amsalem.
Netanyahu pulled chunks of responsibility from some ministries — separating Higher Education from Education is only the most glaringly ridiculous example — and manufactured portfolios as he sought to keep almost everybody happy. (Gideon Sa’ar, who ran against Netanyahu for the Likud leadership in December, will not have been surprised to find no seat at the cabinet table.)
Even as he presented his government on Sunday afternoon, he sprung additional surprise posts, winding up with three more ministers from his bloc than from rival-partner Benny Gantz’s, 19-16. (In order to preserve the equal power-sharing principle at the core of the coalition, only 16 ministers from each bloc will have voting rights.)
Some see in the long days of calculation and adjustment — and a final allocation of posts that also includes provisions for certain ministers to change jobs after 18 months, when Netanyahu is supposed to hand over the premiership to Blue and White’s Gantz — proof that Netanyahu intends to honor the terms of the coalition deal. If he is secretly planning to renege, find a way to evade “rotation,” and force new elections before his scheduled handover to Gantz, this theory holds, he would not have taken such pains over the construction of the ministerial team now and 18 months from now.
Well, maybe. Again, only Netanyahu knows all the considerations behind the choices that sparked a mini-rebellion in the Likud Knesset faction on Thursday, forced the postponement to Sunday of the emergency government’s swearing-in, rewarded some relatively marginal figures who pose no challenge to him, while antagonizing some others who might.
What we do know is that the coalition presented Sunday by Netanyahu mercifully ends an unprecedented period of just over 500 days in which Israel has lacked a fully functioning government, but that its bloated membership, complete with all manner of thoroughly unnecessary, illogical and costly ministerial posts, is an insult to Israelis — and a particular insult at a time when a quarter of the country’s workforce is unemployed.
Ironically, it was the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic that prompted Gantz to abandon his three-election pledge not to sit in government with Netanyahu so long as the Likud leader is under indictment for corruption. Israel is tentatively emerging from that crisis — with shops reopened, schools returning this week, and new cases of contagion dropping toward zero — but must now grapple with the economic meltdown caused by its stringent restrictions.
And yet the “emergency” government ostensibly necessitated by the crisis, mandated to focus in its first few months overwhelmingly on the impact of the pandemic, is emblematic of untrammeled political ego and taxpayer-funded financial excess.
Israel’s first government, formed by David Ben-Gurion in March 1949, numbered 12 ministers. Ben-Gurion served as both prime minister and defense minister. One colleague, Haim Moshe-Shapiro, was responsible for Health, Immigration, and Internal Affairs.
A growing population and multiple challenges may have necessitated a larger ministerial team as the decades passed, but a subsequently scrapped Basic Law in 1992 provided for no more than 18 ministers, and a learned panel similarly concluded just two years ago that 17 ministries was plenty. Instead, Ariel Sharon broke previous records in 2003 with a ministerial complement in the high 20s, Netanyahu got to 30 in 2009, but our new government shatters all previous excesses with a staggering 35 ministers.
Plus up to 16 deputy ministers.
And it is set to grow to 36 in six months’ time.
Each with an office, secretaries, advisers, a car, a driver…
All manner of numbers have been floating around in the past few days about the cost of all this. The highest I’ve heard to date is NIS 1 billion — some $280 million — though how that is calculated, and what exactly it covers, is entirely unclear.
Netanyahu argues that the cost of yet a fourth election, if this coalition had not come together, would have been considerably more expensive. But that is no justification for the resources wasted to satisfy political egos, for the indifference to the selfish symbolism of such excess, and for the patently illogical construction of ministerial portfolios — making a laughingstock of the notion of a minister effectively overseeing such diverse hierarchies.
Another figure bandied about relates to the ratio by which cabinet seats were calculated. Netanyahu and Gantz are said to have named their teams on the basis of each coalition party getting approximately one minister per 3 Knesset members, with Blue and White assessed according to its pre-collapse strength, and with adjustments and compensations in the form of committee chairmanships. Which begs the question of why, in an unusually large coalition, they didn’t simply adjust that ratio.
The answer, in a government established on the principle of equal representation for Netanyahu’s bloc and Gantz’s — that this would have left too many aspiring ministers without a post — simply isn’t good enough.
If this is a return to politics as usual, the public may be forgiven for wondering if maybe we were better off without it.
Netanyahu’s Success; Gantz’s Gamble
Plainly, the new government marks an immense personal victory for Netanyahu — safely in office for the next 18 months. His opposition is radically reduced by Gantz’s about-face. He has split off Rafi Peretz from Yamina and consigned a humiliated Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked to the opposition, too. Labor is two-thirds in, one-third out, and thoroughly irrelevant. An ultra-loyalist (Amir Ohana) is in charge of the Public Security Ministry, as the police potentially grapple with fresh investigations into his financial dealings.
And largely overlooked, but perhaps sweetest of all for Netanyahu, the former close ally who prevented him from forming a coalition at the start of this 16-month three-peat election saga, Avigdor Lieberman, has been utterly marginalized, with his political career unlikely to recover.
For Gantz, the coalition is a gamble. He claims to have acted on principle, to have put Israel first, asserting that his presence and that of his colleagues at that vast cabinet table will improve the government’s handling of the pandemic crisis, safeguard Israeli democracy, foster unity and the rule of law.
But his alliance with Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon has collapsed as an inevitable consequence of his switch to Netanyahu. He gave up on the right to prevent unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank — something he opposes; notably, he made no mention of the issue in his speech Sunday while Netanyahu stressed it. There will be no new push to expand ultra-Orthodox conscription and/or national service.
And he now faces an 18-month wait to see if Netanyahu — whom he praised Sunday for “courageously” accepting the voters’ will and setting a date, November 17, 2021, for handing over Israel’s leadership — will honor that promise.
The two chief protagonists of our new government thoroughly mistrust each other. Bloated and chaotically constructed, the government they have fashioned has started off on the wrong foot.
At any other moment, presented by Netanyahu and Gantz with a government of such manifest extravagance, one might wish a plague on both their houses. At this moment, with the country struggling to recover from the coronavirus while facing fresh and familiar challenges inside and out, we can only wish that they belatedly remember that they are our elected representatives, not prima donnas lording it over us at our direct expense. They are supposed to be the servants, not the exploiters, of the people.
David Horovitz is editor in chief of The Times of Israel.