When lawyer and social activist Arsen Ostrovsky announced on Sunday that he’d been appointed Israel’s Minister of Zoom, it appears that some people took him seriously.
Which kind of says everything you need to know about the long-awaited 35th Knesset, which elevates disregard of the public interest to unprecedented heights.
The obscenely bloated cabinet, Israel’s largest ever, is comprised of 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers. It is a parody of government accountability, particularly in a time of extreme, pandemic-induced financial crisis.
Almost half of elected MKs now come with drivers, cars, bigger expense accounts; bigger offices, more staff, and questionable mandates. It strains the imagination, even in the context of government, to sort out what on Earth all these ministers will be doing.
Among some of my favorite new or slivered portfolios: Higher Education and Water Resources; Regional Cooperation; Settlement Affairs; Religious Services; Jerusalem Affairs; Minister at Ministry of Defense, which is to be distinguished, presumably, from Minister of Defense.
To survive three elections, Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly over-promised cabinet and other coveted positions, leaving him with more demands than he could satisfy.
A few high-profile MKs have been snubbed and consigned to the “backbenches.” Among them, Likud power-house and Bibi’s chief rival-in-waiting, Gideon Sa’ar, and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who was promised the Ministry of Finance by Bibi in February.
Speaking in the Knesset after being sworn in, deposed kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman skewered a number of his Knesset colleagues for their naivete.
“Congratulations,” he said. “Now you know that we have a generous prime minister who distributes free checks, but what can you do [if they bounce]?”
Several other Likudniks were offered plum appointments to step aside. Most prominent is the former minister of public security and Likud heavyweight Gilad Erdan, who is somehow going to serve as both Ambassador to the United States (replacing Ron Dermer the current Ambassador, who will return to Israel following U.S. elections in the fall) and the United Nations, simultaneously.
Only Abba Eban, renowned for his peerless intellect and oratorical panache, has pulled off such a feat. Erdan is reputed to be incredibly hard-working, but most mortals would quake and quiver at the double-appointment he has accepted.
Dubbed the “unity government,” this Knesset, laudably, does include members representing parties across the political spectrum, left to right. Most key ministries have been assigned to Likud stalwarts: Finance, Health, and Knesset Speaker. Blue and White’s Benny Gantz is Minister of Defense and Gabi Ashkenazi is serving as Minister of Foreign Affairs. How much authority they end up exercising remains to be seen.
The only real surprise was that Netanyahu agreed to assign Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn to the Justice Ministry, a critical portfolio for executing a core aspect of Likud’s agenda (like justice reform). And then, there are the optics of the prime minister’s imminent trial on multiple corruption-related charges, which begins next week.
The plan appears to be for Bibi to attend at court three days and focus otherwise on government affairs. Even Bibi–with his legendary capacity for work–will be hard-pressed to control this vendetta-riven cabinet on a part-time basis. This is likely why he appointed his pugnacious ally, Dudi Amsalem, as chief enforcer (officially, minister with responsibility for government-Knesset liaison).
So much of the dramatic political negotiations played out while Israelis were isolated in home-lockdown, permitted to leave for specific and limited purposes. People focused inward, understandably, on caring for elderly parents, home-schooling children, and constantly improvising on new techniques to safeguard continuing sanity.
In the midst of the extreme anxiety that has gripped much of the western world during the pandemic, Israelis showed little interest in which politician was betraying who and for what. They became laser-focused on economic survival and health and, frankly, had no capacity left to further indulge the political hijinks that have been ongoing for more than a year.
The political class picked up on the building public resentment–which was surely confirmed in polling data–and the message was received by the warring factions in the Knesset. In the end, enemies came together, forming an albatross of a government with a whopping price tag for executives of more than NIS 1-billion.
The plan, agreed upon by the Benjamins–Netanyahu and Gantz–is that Bibi will serve as prime minister for the first 18 months and then hand then cede the Chair to Benny.
I give it twelve months. Tops.