Australia/Israel Review

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Apr 28, 2009 | Amotz Asa-El

Bibi’s two cabinet surprises

By Amotz Asa-El

The Middle East may be astir and the global economy ablaze, but Binyamin Netanyahu, since cobbling together his surprising coalition of opposites, has a measure of peace.

True, his government is so large that carpenters had to be hastily assigned to build an additional cabinet table in the Knesset plenary, but Netanyahu himself towers above it, unchallenged as a leader and cushioned by a multi-partisan layer of politicians who share a vested interest in his political survival. Between them, these produce diplomatic, military and domestic room to manoeuvre which is surprisingly broad.

On the diplomatic front, this became manifest days after the new government was sworn in. Outspoken Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s provocative announcement, upon assuming his position, that the Annapolis process, and the shortcut to a two-state solution it envisaged, did not exist, left Netanyahu unaffected. Similarly, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s statement that Cairo would ignore Lieberman as long as he did not revoke his previous anti-Egyptian statements still left Netanyahu above the fray. The Egyptians, embroiled with Iranian-inspired provocations, and publicly challenged by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, whose agents were caught red-handed preparing terror attacks in the Sinai, did not want a rift with Netanyahu.

For his part, rather than comment on Lieberman’s statements, Netanyahu had his coalition’s moderate face, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, meet with visiting diplomats George Mitchell of the US and Miguel Moratinos of the European Union. The message was simple: Lieberman, the man by Netanyahu’s right shoulder is allowed to talk, but he doesn’t decide more than the man by Netanyahu’s opposite shoulder.

Meanwhile, after a Qassam rocket was lobbed from Gaza into southern Israel on the last day of Passover (April 16), Netanyahu had Barak respond with an attack on a Hamas target just within the border fence. Here, too, Netanyahu was reaping the fruit of his alliance with Labor and Barak. The counterattack that under a narrow right-wing coalition would likely have drawn international flack now was received with universal understanding, arguably benefiting from its having been ordered by a defence minister whose party is even to the left of the main opposition party.

Still, the benefits of Netanyahu’s political situation should not be overrated.

With 31 ministers and seven deputy ministers, Israel’s 32nd government is the largest in its history. Comprising nearly a third of the legislature, including 16 of the ruling Likud’s 27 legislators, the cabinet has been effectively reduced to an ineffective debating club. The joke in Israel is that this is the beginning of a spectacular political reform, whereby the cabinet becomes an upper house of sorts, perhaps even a house of lords.

Indeed, the real government is not the formal, cumbersome hybrid beast with 96 legs, but the 15-member Security and Foreign Affairs Cabinet. Yet, due to the need to soothe so many with so little, even this inner forum feels more like a town meeting, as five additional non-voting members turned it into a 20-member forum that is anything but cosy.

True, the people Netanyahu has crowded into this forum, six of whom are former defence ministers, foreign ministers, treasurers, and chiefs of staff, are often appreciated for their expertise and impartiality. Yet frustrations and rivalries are likely to build, with people like former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom now making do with the lesser position of Minister for Regional Cooperation, or former IDF Chief-of-Staff Moshe Ya’alon serving as Minister for Strategic Affairs and former Treasurer Dan Meridor serving as Minister for the Intelligence Services.

The introduction of such extraneous ministries, none of which existed when Netanyahu won February’s general election, has been harshly criticised by the media and the Opposition. Then again, some commentators reminded Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni that the government would likely have been smaller and cheaper had she joined it, and thus allowed Netanyahu to make do with fewer partners and therefore less need to hand out political booty.

Netayahu’s government is clearly overweight, and his own party’s ministers are routinely portrayed as a colourful salad of ideologues, pragmatists, technocrats, opportunists, populists and personal loyalists. Yet, two of Netanyahu’s appointments represent the kind of freshness Likud’s rivals currently lack. These surprising appointments are Yuval Steinitz, a former philosophy professor, as finance minister, and Gideon Sa’ar, a lawyer and former journalist, as education minister.

These two appointments are unique firstly because of the candidates that were passed over as they were made. Education Minister Sa’ar, 42, has only been a lawmaker for six years, had never been a minister, and is a generation under those who ended up making way for him, from General Ya’alon to Benny Begin, son of Likud founder Menachem Begin. Steinitz, though 50 and a Knesset member since 1999, has also never held a cabinet position, and was appointed despite the fact Netanyahu has in his cabinet four experienced former treasurers.

Netanyahu, as treasurer in 2005, made the surprise appointment of Stanley Fischer as Governor of the Bank of Israel. Eventually that decision proved brilliant, but initially it was seen almost as a whim, considering that Fischer, while a warm Jew with good Hebrew, had yet to become an Israeli citizen when asked to head its central bank.

Now Netanyahu is attempting a variation on that theme, cultivating future leaders, ones he hopes will impress the public with their performance and offer him political support in exchange for the opportunity he has given them.

Both Steinitz and Sa’ar have earned a reputation for studying issues in depth and thinking outside the box. The former, for instance, figured while he served as chairman of the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee that Israel’s defence spending should be revolutionised so that a full third of it would go toward naval operations – currently almost a step-child in the IDF’s strategic worldview. One could agree or disagree, but it was a thought no one else had previously come up with. Sa’ar, for his part, has spearheaded his party’s thinking on political reform and, to the chagrin of some of his colleagues, came out in support of introducing district-based elections despite the rift this would likely cause between Likud and the religious parties.

Netanyahu may have also wanted to show others in Likud that he appreciates both men’s principles and integrity, each having resisted the temptation to follow Ariel Sharon’s lead when he split the Likud back in 2005 while leading Israel’s unilateral retreat from Gaza.

The challenges ahead of the two are daunting. The new education minister must reform the system while confronting stubborn unions that have turned previous ministers’ lives into hell and arguably destroyed their careers. There is universal agreement in Israel that the system is ill, with teachers woefully underpaid and too many students failing to pass internationally recognised knowledge-based exams. However, Likud’s medicine for this ailment, emancipated schools under empowered principals, is too bitter for the unions, who fear mass layoffs in the name of meritocracy.

Sa’ar can’t afford surrender, both because Netanyahu appointed him in order to reform, and because he must demonstrate that he can be an effective administrator as well as the respected lawmaker he already is. His first decision, to appoint as director general of the department a reformist education expert identified with the Labor establishment, hints that he means business but, tactically, is possibly seeking to outflank the unions from the left.

Steinitz’s challenges are in some ways harder, but in others easier.

On the one hand, he is tasked with weathering the economic tempest that is rocking the entire world, but on the other hand he is, for better or worse, steering that boat with Netanyahu alongside him. Having been loyal to Netanyahu through thick and thin, he was appointed because Netanyahu wanted a nominal treasurer, while he as prime minister calls the real economic shots. That is why Netanyahu has formally named himself Super-Minister for Economic Strategy, a title that has never previously existed in Israel – or anywhere else for that matter.

Then again, Steinitz is a fast-learning intellectual who abandoned a promising academic career when he concluded that the Oslo Accords were disastrous; a philosopher who proceeded from his original passion to a new public identity as a defence expert. Chances are good that before long his will become a familiar and original voice on economic issues as well.

Whatever their eventual accomplishments may be, these two appointments are more meaningful than most of the many others Netanyahu has made in his cabinet. Likud’s main rival, Kadima, is currently led by a set of people who appear less ideological, intellectual or original than the pair Netanyahu has just catapulted into the thick of Israel’s power structure. As this government’s tenure progresses, the records, images and fortunes of these men are likely to define the meaning, and the duration, of Likud’s return to the governance of the Jewish state.



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