A few years ago, I had a chance to speak to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shortly after he decided to appoint ministers without portfolio. I asked him about the benefit of such ministers. His response was clear: “This is the political price that needs to be paid sometimes so that someone does nothing in one place instead of doing nothing somewhere else.”
A total of 40 ministers without portfolio have served in Israel’s governments since the early 1990s. This number has no equal in any democratic government in the world. The term “minister without portfolio” does not even exist in many countries. In Germany there is one such minister, at the Chancellor’s Office, yet this minister manages all state affairs that the chancellor has no time for. For example, the mediation efforts aimed at securing the release of Israeli captives and bodies from Lebanon.
The annual price of an Israeli minister without portfolio, including his office, can reach NIS 10 million (almost $3 million.) We are talking about an office that comprises up to eight aides and advisors, furniture, equipment, trips abroad, a government vehicle with a driver or two, security guards, etc.
However, this is not enough. In Israel we have invented an innovative method for appointing and appeasing angry ministers who have been left without a government portfolio. Instead, new government ministries were created especially for them with a price tag that is higher than a minister without portfolio.
All those new ministries have one thing in common: The powers granted to them come in the form of transferring a branch or department from an existing ministry, without any real need to create a new ministry to that end. Such ministries included the Regional Development Ministry, the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs, the Ministry for Jerusalem Affairs, and most recently, the Strategic Threats Ministry.
Learn from Germany
How much do we pay for this? This only becomes clear after the ministry is closed. When the government decided two days ago to annul the Strategic Threats Ministry, which was created especially for Avigdor Lieberman, it turned out that the termination would save the State NIS 26.5 million (roughly $7 million.)
It is sad to see that at a time when the Treasury cannot afford to make a significant boost in old-age allowances or offer greater assistance to Holocaust survivors or to the education system, nobody is suggesting to fire 10 government ministers, who as Ariel Sharon admitted in the past, were appointed as ministers in order to do nothing.
Maybe Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will consider such change and make the size of the Israeli government similar to that of Germany’s – only recently, seven German minister (half of Germany’s government) honored us by visiting here. After all, a country with 80 million citizens (more than tenfold compared to Israel’s population) has exactly 10 fewer ministers than we have in the Israeli government.