Last updated: 12 March, 2013

Smaller cabinet for Israel in major coup for centrists

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was still striving to form a government on Tuesday, four days before a deadline to do so and a week ahead of a milestone visit by US President Barack Obama.

But an agreement reached the previous day with a potential coalition partner to reduce the size of the incoming cabinet to 20 ministers from its present 28 was hailed as a major coup for the centrist Yesh Atid.

The more streamlined government had been a central plank of the campaign of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, whose newly formed party shocked Israel’s political scene by becoming parliament’s second-largest faction in the January election.

Still to be resolved is the allocation of the education portfolio, until now held by Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud and which he wants to keep, but Lapid is also pushing for the post to be given to his deputy, Rabbi Shai Piron.

The two parties are also haggling over which of them will take the interior ministry, which until now has been held by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party that is not part of the incoming government.

Netanyahu’s agreement to have just 20 ministers serving under him was seen as a second significant victory for Lapid, which last week secured another electoral promise — a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox.

It is “a major accomplishment for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which has demanded a leaner, more streamlined cabinet,” wrote Haaretz’s Jonathan Lis.

The price of obtaining such a concession was giving a larger “slice of the pie” to Likud-Beitenu, the list which combines Likud with the hardline Yisrael Beitenu which won 31 mandates in the election.

Pundits said Likud was expected to take seven or eight cabinet slots, while Yisrael Beitenu would take three.

Yesh Atid with its 19 seats in parliament, was expected to receive five portfolios, while the far-right Jewish Home, with 12 MPs, would get three.

The centrist HaTnuah, the only party to sign a coalition agreement so far, was promised two but may end up with only one.

“A sharp cut of a third in the number of cabinet ministers is a big thing. It is not just a diet. It is gastric bypass surgery,” wrote Yossi Verter, also in Haaretz.

“Lapid scored an enormous victory for his image… which joined his major achievement: Keeping the ultra-Orthodox out of the coalition,” he wrote.

“On the other hand, the prime minister can take comfort in the fact that the total number of Likud-Beitenu ministers will be greater than those of Yesh Atid, Jewish Home and HaTnuah.

“He is keeping the controlling interest in the government in his hands, which gives him an automatic majority in every cabinet vote.”

The agreement with Yesh Atid means there will be no ministers without portfolio in the next cabinet for the first time since 1951, Haaretz’s Lis said, indicating the move was expected “to save taxpayers millions of shekels.”

“Each minister without portfolio position costs the tax payer around two million shekels ($543,200/417,500 euros) a year,” he wrote, saying the figure was sometimes as high as five million shekels.

“Last year, the total cost to the treasury of ministers without portfolio and ministers with special responsibilities who operated within the prime minister’s office came to about 100 million shekels ($27 million/20.8 million euros).”

Netanyahu is in the final stretch of a six-week period he was granted in order to piece together a coalition of MPs with a majority of at least 61 in the 120-seat Knesset.

Should he fail to seal a deal by Saturday night, the task will be handed by President Shimon Peres to another party leader.

Obama is set to arrive on March 20 for a three-day visit — his first since being elected president in 2008.