The opposition howled, but the Israeli cabinet voted unanimously on Sunday to revise upward the legal limit of 18 ministers, giving Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu the latitude he needs to satisfy the demands of coalition partners and his own Likud party for senior government posts.
It is expected that 20 ministers and several deputy ministers will be appointed by Wednesday, in time for the induction of the new cabinet. Of the 20 ministers, 12 will go to the Likud, and the rest to its partners, according to Yisrael Hayom.
Sources close to Netanyahu said he will hold the Foreign Ministry portfolio for himself, until such time as he can give it to a new coalition partner, like Zionist Camp or a post-Lieberman Yisrael Beiteinu. Whether or how long he will be able to do that is unclear, in light of internal pressure to designate the No. 2 man in the Likud, outgoing Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, as Foreign Minister.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog declared on Sunday an obstructionist policy, vowing to “filibuster anything” the prime minister puts forward in the Knesset. Last week, he said the objective was to bring down the Netanyahu government as soon as possible.
The cabinet expansion has become the first battleground issue, a reversal of a reform pushed by Yair Lapid in the last government. Lapid has responded vituperatively to the proposed expansion, calling it “corruption at the expense of the public coffers.”
On Sunday, his Yesh Atid party petitioned the High Court for a temporary injunction to stop the legislative process.
The High Court then asked the state to respond by 8 a.m. Monday.
Yesh Atid’s faction head MK Ofer Shelah said they turned to the High Court to stop “a despicable play to increase the number of ministers against public opinion, against all sense and all principles, all while trampling on every government procedure and Knesset process.” They argued that the current transitional government lacks authority to pass such a measure.
Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin acidly noted that Lapid had conveniently forgotten that the government he himself had served in had 22 ministers, whereas the new one is seeking only 20.
Elkin suggested that Lapid’s present concern about spending on a bigger cabinet has more to do with personal political ambitions than thrifty governance.
“He was fine with serving as finance minister in a government with 22, but is now complaining about a government with 20.”
Lapid still has allies in the Finance Ministry, though, which he only recently left.
Budget director Amir Levy sent a letter to government legal advisor Avichai Mandelblit on Sunday, stating, “Our view is that in order to streamline government business, the number of government ministries should be reduced.”
“If a change is made in the number of ministers and deputy ministers beyond what is stipulated by law, the cost will be NIS 2.8-3.9 million per minister (NIS 11.2-15.6 million over a full government term) and NIS 1.5 million per deputy minister (NIS 6 million over a full government term).
Levy pointed out that Israel is ministerially overloaded, compared with its comrades in the OECD.
“The number of ministers in Israel is 27, compared with only 14 in OECD countries with an efficient public sector. One of the reasons why a large number of ministries detracts from efficiency in the public sector is the fact that in a typical ministry, 35-40% of the ministry personnel consists of headquarters and general personnel, which does not necessarily lead to more services for people.”
“More government ministries means more regulation, and in certain cases, has a negative impact on economic activity,” he added.
Proponents of the larger cabinet maintain that it will have no significant impact on the economy.
Squabbling among the opposition heads has also started, and they will have to overcome their own rivalries if they are to mount an effective counterpoise to the coalition.
Cabel wrote to Lapid, “The Zionist Union is the largest party in the opposition, and we, not you, will lead the fight to shorten the days of Netanyahu’s new government just as we did with the previous government that you were a part of.”