Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April Fool's?

Israel’s 32nd government was sworn in on Wednesday April 1,2009. To some analysts the 30 member cabinet was an April Fool’s joke. To others a bulwark against encroaching Arab control of the region, to yet others a lifeline in a time of economic uncertainty.

Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu is Israel’s new PM with a record number of cabinet ministers. A few of them, like Labor’s Avishai Braverman, made ideological noises while the negotiations were going on, swearing they would never join a right-wing coalition government: that is until these noisemakers like Braverman were handed a cabinet post, then they shut up.

For a time Braverman was among the holdouts, the rebels, in the Labor party barking at the heels of party leader Ehud Barak, forming their own rival groups to unseat the Defense Minister, all with an eye on replacing Barak if possible. Former radio and TV journalist Shelly Yakamovitch was one of the leaders of the opposition to Labor joining the Likud lead coalition. She had Braverman by her side, as well as Ofer Pines. But the rebels didn’t succeed. Barak negotiated a good place for those who joined him in supporting Netanyahu, thus keeping his political life afloat and holding onto the Defense Ministry portfolio.

Most who followed Barak received ministerial posts, like Braverman, while others like Matan Vilnai received deputy ministerial posts. Braverman, the former head of Ben Gurion University, has high political ambitions and according to analysts realized he was better off as a minister in Netanyahu’s government than a backbencher in the opposition lead by Yakamotvich and Pines.

What we have here are egos on display. Some pundits have criticized the likes of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for accepting a post to which he is unsuited. Others have criticized Kadima leader Tzipi Livni for not signing on with Netanyahu and form a national unity government that would ostensibly be for the good of the country.

But what’s good for the country, according to one analyst, comes after what’s good for the politician. Israel radio’s Reshet Bet’s Keren Neubach hosted a conversation between two economists on Wednesday morning. One, Dr. Avi Ben Bassat, was even the former Director-General of the Finance Ministry. In the conversation it came out that Yuval Steinitz, the new Finance Minister, and Gideon Saar, the new Education Minister were both given their jobs because they were loyal friends to Netanyahu. The radio talk show participants snickered. “That’s the way Israel is run,” said one.

Both Ben Bessat and the other interviewee, a professor of economics at Tel Aviv University, agreed that Yuval Steinitz didn’t need to have a Ph.D. in economics in order to be Finance Minister, (Steinitz has a PH.D. in Philosophy) but should have some understanding of business and the marketplace. Some familiarity with the lexicon used by economists would also be helpful. Neubach pointed out that as a journalist she was often given statements and papers by the Ministry of Finance that neither she nor, according to her, many Knesset members understood.

It was precisely for this reason, said Ben Bessat, that someone with a background in the field was needed to run this important ministry. But politics, not merit, were the deciding factors in this new government. The Haaretz newspaper today estimated it would take Steinitz about a year to figure out how to run the Finance Ministry.

Meanwhile Netanyahu, who fancies himself an expert economist, will be in de facto charge of that ministry. How effective the government will be, or how long it will last, remains to be seen.

Another analyst said that Netanyahu must think only he can solve the problems facing Israel or why else did he fight for the post for ten years and then make deals that put 37 Knesset members in his cabinet? Where are the idealists? What we have are the egoists. Scary stuff, said the analysts.

One cynic quipped, “I'd have a big ego if I had something to be egotistical about. These guys? Hard to fathom!”

“Entertainers, I can understand,” he said. “You have talent. You have a voice, like Pavarotti, you get up in front of an audience and make the hair stand up on the back of a listener's neck. You impress with your beauty, your grace, your ability to swing a low-slung roadster around a race-track, glide across the ice moving the puck as if it were attached to the stick by a magnet, sail towards the net like a bird in flight and slam the ball through the rim, these things I can understand. But simply the ability, and the talent, to convince people or bribe people to support you for a position just because you're driven to it, with no real consideration for what the man in the street needs, astounds me. No matter what I think today it always comes back to that concept, ego driven rulers.”

April Fool or April fools. Only time will tell.