What the hell going on in Israel?

    The new government has yet to be sworn in, and Yair Lapid, chief architect of the new coalition, has already chalked up one enormous failure. That, at least, is how he tells it.

    The new government, he assured Monday at a meeting of his Yesh Atid party’s Knesset faction, “will be sworn in and will endure.” Unlike the previous government, he explained, it will be founded “on the right things: trust, fairness, goodwill.”

    But, he admitted, there’s at least one way in which the new government will be just like the old one, and no one laments that fact more than he.

    The sheer size and bloat of the new unity government — 28 cabinet ministers and six deputy ministers — will make it the third-largest in Israel’s history. That’s third out of 36, second only to the outgoing government (35 cabinet ministers) and Netanyahu’s 2009-2013 government (30 ministers).

    “I have failed there,” Lapid said bluntly at the Monday meeting. “I can’t defend it. I wanted a small government with a small number of ministers. This is not a good thing.”

    Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid at a faction meeting at the Knesset on June 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

    What he could not excuse he tried to explain. “This is what allowed us to form a government,” he said.

    Lapid’s frustration and embarrassment are real. He has spent the past year excoriating the outgoing Netanyahu-Gantz government for its “shameless” and “opportunistic” wastefulness and bloat. That bloat, he told Israelis in May 2020, proved that Netanyahu and Gantz didn’t really care about the public or the newly arrived pandemic, but were focused entirely on their own personal needs.

    It’s been a recurring refrain for the Yesh Atid leader. “The only thing our politicians care about is politics itself, politics and appointments,” he fumed back in December 2016 when the Netanyahu government changed public service rules to allow for more political appointees. “Appointments for their associates, political appointments, appointments for activists, appointments for those close to the plate…. They forgot the citizens of this country. Israeli citizens were forgotten because the only thing that interests our politicians is politics and appointments.”

    The internet, as they say, never forgets. Footage of Lapid railing against government bloat and overlarge cabinet tables was dragged out in recent weeks to embarrass him.

    MKs at a special session honoring Jerusalem Day at the Knesset on May 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

    But a deeper question must be asked about Lapid’s failure: Why? Why couldn’t a champion of smaller governments, a man who passed a law five years ago limiting the cabinet to 18 ministers — a law whose implementation was repeatedly delayed by the Knesset until it was finally overturned last year — stick to his promise? The new government has promised to do better than the last one; if it couldn’t deliver even on Lapid’s basic promise of a smaller cabinet, how will it fare with other, larger promises?

    Dysfunctional governments

    The problem goes deeper than Lapid’s integrity or campaign promises. Israel’s governments have grown steadily with the years, and grown less efficient and more dysfunctional for it. And as the cabinet grows, the cohort of working parliamentarians left to do the Knesset’s daily work shrinks, rendering Israel’s parliament one of the least effective bodies in the public service.

    As governments grow, their ability to govern diminishes, according to Dr. Asaf Shapira, director of the Israel Democracy Institute’s political reform program. Shapira, who spoke with The Times of Israel this week, cites studies by the World Bank and OECD that have shown that governments with a large number of ministries function far worse than governments with only a few.

    And when, as in Israel’s case, those ministries are created for political convenience rather than policy effectiveness, the damage is all the greater.

    Ministers attend a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 29, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

    Israeli politicians are always keen to join the cabinet, but in recent years have come to fear the public ridicule that accompanies appointments of “ministers without portfolio.” So each new minister demands that a ministry be established to justify their appointment. That’s how the panoply of needless, aimless ministries that now dot the public service came into existence: the ministries of public diplomacy, intelligence, strategic affairs, community empowerment, diaspora affairs, and so on.

    These ministries not only eat away at the more established parent ministries from which they were spun off, but generally do a worse job dealing with their subject matter because they often lack the institutional memory and expertise of the parent ministries and by their very existence end up scattering the planning processes for their policy fields across ever-larger bureaucracies.

    Dysfunctional parliaments

    But large governments are also a bane for their parliaments, especially in a system like Israel’s in which the vast majority of ministers are MKs.

    Israel already has one of the smallest parliaments in the democratic world. Ireland’s population is roughly half of Israel’s, but its parliament of 226 members is 80% larger. Switzerland’s 8.5 million people are represented by 246 lawmakers. Austria’s 9 million by 244.

    Preparations for the opening session of the 24th Knesset on April 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

    “The normal size for parliaments for countries of our size is over 200,” explained Shapira. It’s a general rule of thumb: parliaments tend to be roughly the cube root of the population. The cube root of Israel’s 9 million population is 208. The formula gets a bit complicated when multiple houses and regional parliaments are taken into account; but in Israel’s case, without regional parliaments or a second house to consider, the Knesset, scholars agree, is just too small.

    And that combination of a small parliament and a large and growing cabinet has dire ramifications: Israel’s parliament has been all but gutted as an institution.

    “The workload in the Knesset is enormous. It’s small, unicameral and without regional parliaments; it hasn’t got the slightest chance of keeping up with the pressure” of managing a 9-million-member polity, says Shapira.

    Even in the best of times, each MK must serve in four or five committees simultaneously and is asked, impossibly, to keep track of dozens of issues and cast a dozen votes in a parliamentary workday on bills and regulatory decisions they scarcely have time to learn.

    When, as in the outgoing and incoming governments, the total number of cabinet posts is more than half the combined parliamentary strength of the coalition, the coalition MK’s already difficult job becomes downright impossible.

    Idit Silman takes part in a tree-planting event for the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, in Beit El on February 10, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

    In the new Knesset, neophyte backbenchers will be taking up some of the most complex and influential posts in parliament, including vital committee and coalition chairmanships. If, as expected, Yamina’s Idit Silman becomes coalition chair, the new Knesset will have appointed the least-experienced coalition chair in history to wrangle the narrowest and most diverse coalition ever.

    That impossible workload has steep costs for the public. Such a parliament cannot hope to meaningfully oversee the decisions and agencies of the government or consider major reforms or legislative proposals. Overstretched MKs in recent Knessets have increasingly relied on activists and commercial lobbyists to decide how to vote — for the simple reason that they tend to be the only people in any given committee meeting with any clear grasp of the issue being voted on.

    The Knesset is weak, the MK is powerful

    Lapid knows all that; he has spoken about the dangers of overlarge cabinets and overworked MKs often and with some passion. But as he is now discovering to his chagrin and bewilderment, he has been confusing the cause and the effect.

    “There’s a lot of empirical research that has confirmed that, paradoxically, smaller parliaments create larger governments,” explained Shapira.

    MK Yoaz Hendel at a meeting of the Arrangements Committee in the Knesset, on June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

    “Israeli governments keep growing partly because every MK matters in a small Knesset. You saw that with Orly Levy-Abecasis,” who was handed the newly forged Community Empowerment Ministry last year to entice her to defect from left to right, “or with [Yoaz] Hendel and [Zvi] Hauser,” whose refusal to sit in a government supported by the Arab parties last year helped force the March 2021 snap election.

    Individual backbenchers can upend whole governments, forcing prime ministers “to buy off every single one.”

    And so larger parliaments, “where an individual MK is much less important and you don’t have to cater to each and every one,” tend to form smaller, more effective governments — with the added benefit that MKs freed from the constant pursuit of cabinet posts are better able to perform their primary duties as lawmakers and government overseers.

    The trouble with Norway

    In other words, Netanyahu wasn’t to blame for the bloated governments of recent years, and Lapid and Bennett aren’t to blame for the size of the next one. All were responding to a simple reality: a political system boasting what may be the world’s highest cabinet-to-parliament ratio.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, June 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

    It’s a problem recent governments have tried to solve with the so-called “Norwegian Law,” modeled on Norway’s requirement that cabinet ministers resign their parliamentary seats. The Israeli version allows ministers, at their discretion, to resign their Knesset post temporarily in order to let the next in line on their party slate take their seat.

    The law has enabled a handful of additional MKs to be added to the parliament’s committee roster. It helped alleviate some of the pressure.

    That’s why Lapid and Bennett are now mulling an expansion to the law that would massively increase the number of seats each party can free up. If passed, as many as 27 cabinet appointees would be able to resign their seats in favor of down-slate candidates.

    But the Norwegian Law isn’t the solution many believe. For one thing, it keeps changing. The last government amended the Norwegian Law to suit its needs; the new one plans to do the same.

    “It cheapens the rules of the game. The rules aren’t supposed to change in each government according to the immediate interests of that government,” Shapira remarks.

    Shas MK Yaakov Margi reacts at a meeting of the Arrangements Committee at the Knesset on June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

    The problem isn’t just a violation of the principle that constitutional rules shouldn’t be easy to change. The problem is that easily changed rules render deep structural reform impossible. The next government won’t feel obligated to the new way of doing things, and so won’t shape its behavior to fit the rules. It’ll just change the rules again.

    There’s another problem, too. The Norwegian Law, even at its most expansive, simply isn’t enough. MKs must juggle four committees and more even in periods where cabinets shrink to the mid-20s. Merely freeing up some MKs won’t solve the problem.

    The solution

    The small size of Israel’s parliament makes each MK too powerful, its cabinets too large and cumbersome, and its public service too dependent on pressure groups and inexperienced politicians.

    When even Lapid, a man who built his political identity partly on championing smaller governments, stands helpless before these deep structural realities, it’s no longer possible to blame one’s political opponents or the egos or culture of the political class for the problem.

    MKs at a special session honoring Jerusalem Day at the Knesset on May 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

    The solution: Grow the Knesset, perhaps even double its size, immediately, in one fell move.

    A Knesset twice the current size would weaken individual MKs and strengthen the institution. Governments could be formed with fewer ministers and more coherent and sensible ministries. Committees would be fully staffed and MKs better prepared.

    Shapira acknowledges such a move would play a big part in solving the problem, but says the IDI, a Jerusalem think tank and research center, “doesn’t even try to recommend this, because there’s no way the public will accept it. As long as the Knesset’s reputation is poor, partly because it doesn’t work very well, it’s hard to see how you convince people to expand it.”

    One way, he muses, might be to point to the runaway costs of Israel’s ever-expanding cabinet.

    According to the Knesset, each MK costs the public purse some NIS 1.7 million ($520,000) per year, a figure that includes their salary, car, office and staff. A minister usually costs more than three times that figure — and that’s just for the minister’s office and closest staff, i.e., a “minister without portfolio.” If that minister demands the invention of an unnecessary new ministry to justify their appointment, the cost often runs into the tens of millions.

    Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid (standing) and Yamina head Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum for the election of Israel’s 11th president, June 2, 2021. (Dani Shem Tov/ Knesset)

    An expansion of the Knesset that results in a smaller cabinet — the two steps could be stipulated in the same bill — may well pay for itself.

    An expanded Knesset is also a more resilient reform than the ever-shifting Norwegian Law, since the new members brought in by the change are extremely unlikely to vote their positions out of existence.

    The center-left has spent the past year lashing Netanyahu for his bloated governments. Now that he’s leaving office, that same center-left is discovering to its genuine surprise that Netanyahu wasn’t the cause of the bloat and dysfunction. He was its victim. No one in the Knesset actually disagrees with any of the above. The Knesset is too small, the government is too big, MKs are overstretched and interest groups are overpowerful. As things stand, as Israel’s population grows and its parliament grows steadily less able to cope with the ensuing workload, the dysfunction will only get worse.

    The new government promises to do better than the last. It will struggle to deliver on that promise if it must contend with the same structural straitjackets that have hampered its predecessors. Lapid may well emerge from his present embarrassment with more than momentary chagrin. He may learn from it that only a deep, abiding change can transform the Knesset into the effective steward of the public interest the new coalition yearns for it to be.

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