Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Cats in a Sack:
Politicians Loot Government Resources
By Uri Avnery
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, April
IT IS a rather disgusting spectacle.
The Israeli Right has won a crushing election victory. (On closer
examination, the victory was not quite so crushing. Indeed, there was no
victory at all. The crushing victory of Likud was achieved only at the
expense of other rightist parties.)
The Rightist bloc together has
not advanced at all. To form a majority coalition, it needs the party of
Moshe Kahlon, the majority of whose voters are more leftist than rightist.
Kahlon could easily have been persuaded to join a leftist coalition, if the
leader of the Labor Party, Yitzhak Herzog, had been a more resolute
Be that as it may, Binyamin Netanyahu is now busy
trying to construct his government.
That's where the disgust comes
A FIGHT is going on. A fight of all against all. A
fight without rules or limits.
Everyone wants to be a
minister. Everybody in Likud and the other prospective coalition parties.
And not just any minister. Ministries are not
equal. Some are more prestigious, some less. One cannot compare the
all-important Ministry of the Treasury (already promised to Kahlon) with the
Ministry of the Environment, despised by each and all. Nor the Ministry of
Education, with its thousands of employees (teachers and such) or the
Ministry of Health (with its multitudes of doctors, nurses and what not)
with the Ministry of Sports (hardly any employees).
several classes of ministries. At the top there are the Big Three – Defense,
Treasury and Foreign Affairs. Defense is generally admired ("Our brave
soldiers") and gets a huge share of the state budget. Everybody and his wife
(as you say in Hebrew slang) wants to be Minister of Defense.
Defense officials despise Foreign Office officials, as does the entire
country. The cocktail-sippers are not real he-men (nor she-women). Yet the
post of Foreign Minister is hotly desirable. He or she travels around all
the time, represents the state, is photographed with the world's great.
Also, last but not least, a Foreign Minister cannot fail. If foreign
relations go wrong, nobody accuses the Foreign Minister. If anyone at all,
it's the Prime Minister who gets the blame.
ON THE morrow of an
election, when the dust of battle clears, many dozens of politicians cast
their eyes on the few ministries.
Each one of the leading
candidates of the prospective coalition parties starts to send longing looks
at the still empty chairs. One of the Big Three? If not, some of the
desirable medium ministries? If not, at least one of the minor ones? Or at
least Deputy Minister? The mouth waters.
Trouble is, Israeli law
prescribes that the government can consist of no more than 18 ministries. No
"ministers without portfolio". The number of deputy ministers is also
Who would pass such a stupid law? I think it
was Yair Lapid who, in a moment of hubris, caused the law to be passed. It
is, of course, vastly popular. It saves money. Each minister, even without a
portfolio, is entitled to a minimal staff, an office, a car and a chauffeur.
Compared to the price of a single fighter plane, that is nothing. But for
the general public it is a symbol of wastefulness. So we have this law.
How do you fit 40 aspiring politicians into 18 ministries? You don't. Either
you change the law, as many now demand, or you turn away many very angry
politicians, at your own risk.
You can console some of them with
minor jobs, such as chair(wo)man of a Knesset committee, or ambassador. Not
the same, though.
ALL THIS is human, all too human. Politicians
are human beings. Most of them at least.
So why am I so disgusted?
Perhaps I should explain.
In medieval times, when an army,
mainly consisting of mercenaries, conquered a town, they sacked it. Burghers
were killed, women raped, but most of all, property was stolen. In a modern
democratic society, politicians should not do the same to the country that
A government ministry is not spoils. True, in the US
there was a saying "to the victor, the spoils", and the winning party was
expected to distribute all the government jobs in the country to its
stooges. But that was long ago – last century.
A minister is in
charge of some defined part of government activity. He or she makes
important decisions that affect the lives of citizens. The public has the
right to expect that all government offices and services be run the best way
possible, by the most qualified people possible.
So why should a
ministry – say the Ministry of the Environment – be run by a political
nincompoop, who has no idea at all of the matter entrusted to him or her?
Worse, by a political hack who doesn't give a damn, and who only wishes to
pass the time without a glaring mishap, until some better ministry falls
into his or her hands?
But Environment is a very important matter.
It concerns the lives of people. Just now all Israel is excited over the
suspicion that the many large chemical works located in the beautiful Haifa
Bay area are responsible for the many cancer cases among the local children.
And the minister? I don't even know who that is.
I REMEMBER a
In 1999, Ehud Barak, then leader of the Labor
Party, won a resounding election victory over Binyamin Netanyahu. When he
published his list of ministers, there was an audible gasp.
what looked like a sadistic streak, Barak appointed all the wrong people to
all the wrong jobs. The gentle professor of history, Shlomo Ben-Ami, was
appointed Minister of Police, where he failed miserably. Yossi Beilin, who
considers himself an important statesman, was sent to the Ministry of
Justice. And so on.
Now something similar may be happening. Likud's
"Bogie" Ya'alon, generally considered a "bock" (from the German Bock, billy
goat) will remain in office. No ruling party ever gives up the Ministry of
The choice of Kahlon as Minister of the Treasury may be
sound - but it is imposed on Netanyahu, since without Kahlon he would
have no government.
Avigdor Lieberman seems to have a kushan
on the Foreign Ministry. (A kushan was a certificate of ownership in the
good old days of the Ottoman Empire.) Though trounced by the voters in the
election (his party lost most of its seats), Netanyahu insists on his
remaining in his job, in which he was a catastrophe. Many foreign ministers
around the world refused to meet him, considering him a near-fascist. He was
proud of his friendship with Vladimir Putin, but just now Russia has
promised to deliver its unsurpassed air-defense missiles to Iran, putting an
end to Netanyahu's dreams of bombing Iran's nuclear sites.
leaves nothing for Naftali Bennett, the far-right "natural ally" of
Netanyahu, and at this moment the coalition builders are busy enlarging the
Economy Ministry to console him. Several functions must be scraped together,
whether that is useful or not.
What about the public good?
Efficient government? Well…
THE ROOT of the malaise is the
combination of two quite different talents in our democratic system – and
not only ours.
Under this system, politicians become ministers. That
seems quite natural. Actually, it is not.
Politicians are supposed
to be highly motivated, highly intelligent, highly talented administrators.
Actually, they are not.
Contrary to accepted wisdom, politics is a
profession. It has been said that it is a profession for those who have no
talents. But that is not entirely true. Politicians need certain talents,
but these have nothing in common with those demanded from a department
A politician must be able to listen for years to endless
empty speeches by party hacks, take part in endless meetings without
purpose, be a member of endless committees. They must be ready to flatter
people they despise, attend weddings, bar-mitzvas and funerals, delivering a
mind-numbing speech at each.
Then, after reaching the top, they are
suddenly required to run the Ministry of Health, without any qualifications
in this area at all. That's where the proverbial dog is buried.
the UK, they found a solution. The ministry is actually run by the civil
service. The minister, often an object of silent amusement, is only in
charge of procuring budgets. See the hilarious BBC TV series "Yes,
A quite different system prevails in the US. The people
elect a president, and he (all have been male so far) alone appoints the
ministers who frequently are not politicians at all. So he can appoint
experts with proven abilities.
In Israel we combine the worst of all
systems. All ministers are party hacks. They bring with them their stooges,
who man (or woman) the chief positions in the ministries.
result of this system is that different ministries belong to different
parties. This makes joint planning almost impossible – apart from the fact
that Israelis in general are unable to plan anything. Indeed, we are very
proud of our “ability to improvise".
When he was still Minister of
Agriculture, Ariel Sharon once told me: "When I want to do something for
which I need only my own ministry, I can do it. When I want to do something
that needs the cooperation of several ministries, I can't do it."
IF YOU fill a sack with cats, you will be accused of cruelty to animals.
But what is that compared to filling 18 ministries with politicians?
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