Editor’s Notes: Bloated government, vast challenges

By David Horovitz April 3, 2009

Does Israel really need 30 cabinet members? Of course we do not. Less would have been more. Small would have been beautiful

In financially battered Israel, an Israel increasingly mistrustful and resentful of a political elite that is seen as pitifully selfish and out-of-touch, the coalition negotiations that have produced our most bloated ever government seem particularly ghastly.

We have long suffered from a political reality in which ministers come and go like participants in a deranged game of musical chairs, holding their cabinet portfolios far too briefly to internalize what it is their jobs are supposed to entail, much less become sufficiently adept to prioritize and implement critical change.

We have long been told by disillusioned insiders that our cabinet meetings are exercises in empty political theater, irrelevant talking shops in which much hot air is liberated but next-to-nothing of genuine substance achieved.

And while the politicians themselves, ostensibly aggrieved, have always disputed such assessments, the sheer mass of clamoring, unmanageable egos that will take their seats at Binyamin Netanyahu’s elongated cabinet table can only render their get-togethers pointless. How can serious debate and decision emerge from a gathering so large and unwieldy? How can the military and intelligence chiefs, and the other experts charged with briefing our leaders to better inform their decision-making, dare provide sensitive information to a forum so vast, so lacking in credibility, so incapable by its very nature of maintaining discretion?

There is more than sufficient blame to go round for this exercise in government by hideously overblown committee, and at least part of it attaches to our own conflicted electorate, whose confused preferences, exacerbated by our lousy system, produced a hopelessly splintered parliament in which no party holds so much as a quarter of the seats.

But Kadima and now opposition leader Tzipi Livni deepened the malaise by choosing not to answer Binyamin Netanyahu’s unity overtures, forcing the Likud leader to cobble together this sprawling, multi-headed political beast. As with her diplomacy at wars’ end, Livni made the worst of a strong position, holding to high-minded theoretical principle, but gaining nothing in practice.

A mob of would-be ministers then gathered to lobby for their individual elevation. And Netanyahu himself proved ominously clumsy in distributing portfolios and resorted to ministerial and deputy ministerial manufacture at offensive expense.

Does Israel really need 30 cabinet members, far more than in countries with immensely larger populations than ours, many of them transparently appointed to their positions because of the narrowest of pressures rather than the overflow of essential work to be done? Of course we do not. Half that number would not merely have sufficed, but would have enabled more efficient government at much reduced cost. Less would have been more. Small would have been beautiful.

OFF TO an unpromising start, Netanyahu’s improbable and expensive combination of clashing agendas and exaggerated egos can justify itself only if it defies its nature and proves both stable and capable of effectively running and representing Israel.

Just possibly, the presence within government of key players on both sides of the debate about religious freedoms in Israel, for example, could yield compromise positions that benefit the entire citizenry.

Just possibly, the shared survival interests of the disparate coalition partners could facilitate workable consensus on other key issues, notably including the allocation of resources to the settlement enterprise.

And there is clearly possible benefit in Netanyahu’s relentless and ultimately successful effort to present a wide government with a fair claim to represent Israelis across a goodly proportion of the electoral spectrum.

International critics and the Kadima-led opposition are already sniping that Labor has sold its soul, and Ehud Barak’s party is itself torn over whether it should have joined the government, unconvinced about how much influence it will have on policy-making.

But with this coalition taking office in the aftermath of another farewell ‘it’s our fault’ salvo from Ehud Olmert – who three weeks ago bitterly acknowledged that he had been unable to make peace with the Palestinians because of their strategic disinclination to compromise, yet this week asserted that he could have done the deal if we’d only given him more time – the Likud-Labor partnership is vital, indeed.

It offers at least potential credibility for the government when telling Israelis what is truly achievable, and what is not, in our dealings with the Palestinians. And it offers similar potential credibility abroad, where Israel’s insistent assertions that it truly seeks peace are increasingly derided and where the arrival of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister may have been a political necessity but is an early diplomatic own goal.

Underlining the problem, the new foreign minister’s first utterance, trashing the Annapolis process, was anything but diplomatic: The Obama administration would have let that president George W. Bush-led initiative fade anyway, in favor of its own ideas. Now Lieberman has presented Israel as the obstacle. In his same opening remarks, Lieberman acknowledged Israel’s commitment to the road map, which envisages a two-state solution. The significance of that stance – the very commitment that international leaders have been urging this new government to reiterate – was buried in the outcry over the redundant Annapolis comments.

AFTER YEARS when Olmert incorrectly assured Bush and other world statesmen that peace was almost within our grasp, and thus galvanized the Annapolis journey to deadlock, a coalition dominated by the Likud and parties to its right would have faced an uphill battle to impress upon American and European leaders that, even with the best will in the world, no such accord is attainable at present.

Notwithstanding intemperate remarks from the new foreign minister, a coalition featuring Barak, the man who sacrificed his prime ministership for his Camp David gamble on peacemaking with Yasser Arafat in 2000, will likely receive a more empathetic hearing when it sets out similarly unhappy assessments and offers more modest suggestions for gradual improvement.

With Europe hurting financially, defensive and all-too prone to blame Israel rather than Islamist indoctrination for terrorism and extremism, and with America unsure of its own direction, deeply shaken by the collapse of its economic certainties, and reassessing its priorities and its alliances, this new leadership, if it acts cohesively, can better defend and advance Israeli interests than could a narrower political combination. There was never any doubt that those two immensely effective communicators, Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, would clearly understand each other. But with Barak in Netanyahu’s corner, the dialogue can only be more productive.

Perhaps most importantly, too, Netanyahu’s pleas and Barak’s positive response to them mean we have a government of relative consensus when facing the prime looming challenge to our national well-being: Iran’s unrelenting nuclear drive. With every passing week, the nightmare dilemma in which either Iran goes nuclear or it falls to Israel to intervene militarily becomes more inescapable.

This week saw the culmination of a coalition-building process repugnant even by Israel’s dismal standards, a display of rampant selfishness by those who are supposed to represent not their own needs but those of the public. But where it mattered most, in that area of our governance where the threats are most acute, it was at least a small comfort to witness the quiet recognition by ex-chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon that the defense minister’s job he coveted would not be his, and that the wider Israeli good required Barak’s continued tenure.

© The Jerusalem Post