Roused out of the lethargy that marked his re-election campaign, Binyamin Netanyahu followed up on his strong advocacy of governmental reform by the way he conducted his six-party government coalition in its first two weeks. Fired up for action and unfazed by his wafer-thin 61-member Knesset majority, he is wielding power according to the best divide-and-rule traditions of fully-qualified, omnipotent presidents.
Under Israel’s current system of government, the president is little more than a figurehead most of the time. He can only be fired by a special parliamentary majority, while the prime minister who heads the executive branch can be ousted by an ordinary majority. And so he is now skating on thin ice.
But the constitution is still being written and governance reform is on the table.
To build his fourth cabinet, Netanyahu traded away eight valuable portfolios to win five coalition partners. He then played musical chairs with the overbooked candidacy for the 12 ministries left to his own Likud party. Over-expectant loyalists were appeased with a string of pompous titles.
But when all the ministers settled in their seats this week, DEBKA Weekly’s political analysts ran an eye over the lineup and found nothing random about it; nor was it the result of a right-wing “political circus,” as defined by the sneering domestic media.
First task: Establish unchallenged authority
First, Netanyahu kept his hand on three anchors to support his unchallenged authority in party and government: the premiership, the foreign affairs portfolio, and the defense ministry, which stays in the hands of Moshe Ya’alon with whom he has a perfect understanding.
Secondly, he installed new and relatively young ministers in key posts, dropping the average age by nearly a generation. Netanyahu and Ya’alon are 65. Almost all the new Likud ministers are in their early forties, like most of their coalition colleagues.
By this device, the Likud leader pre-empted a potential party mutiny against him and, by promoting untried, eager politicians to big jobs, he used their inexperience as an asset to make them all the more dependent on the prime minister for advice and for settling turf battles within the cabinet.
Since presenting his government on May 14, sources in Jerusalem say Netanyahu is a new man, compared with the inert figure in the months leading up to the March election: He is constantly on the move, rushing from task to task, sleeping no more than two to three hours a night, in between endless phone calls to parties in Israel and overseas.
Reconstructing the Foreign Ministry, getting gas on flow
Some say he labors under the fear that his government will be short-lived, and he wants to get as much done as he can on matters important to him: e.g. enhanced security, a stable economy, bridging the gap between the haves and have-nots; affordable housing; and boosting foreign relations to debunk his foes’ claims that his policies have led Israel into international isolation.
His efforts have been concentrated in three main areas:
1. Dismantling the foreign ministry mechanisms constructed by the last minister Avigdor Lieberman (now in opposition) and whose policies contradicted those set out by the prime minister. He also ordered the downsizing of the large staff specializing in relations with Russia and East Europe.
This axing he left to the new Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotoveli (36). She and the new Director General Dore Gold will not determine policy; their job is to keep the ministry ticking over smoothly and defuse potential roadside bombs.
Foreign policy will be shaped in the Prime Minister’s Office – and may produce some surprises.
2. Netanyahu also acted expeditiously to solve the nagging issue of Israel’s Mediterranean sea gas bonanza, which had been stuck for many months in an internecine battle over the cartel status of US Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek Group.
Netanyahu needs gas revenues to fund big plans
To remove the main obstacle to a compromise deal between the State of Israel and the gas cartel, he simply showed the door to Antitrust Commissioner Prof. David Gilo, who resigned Monday May 25.
This stirred up a storm of debate, but Netanyahu replied that, with all due respect to competition in the economy, insisting on this point would leave the gas on the seabed, instead of reducing the average Israel’s fuel bills. Noble, moreover, had made available the special equipment needed for deep-sea drilling.
Yuval Steinitz, Minister of national Infrastructure, Energy and Water, disclosed that the bureaucratic delay in bringing the gas on line had cost the treasury a staggering NIS20 billon (est. US$5 billion)!
And Netanyahu needs that money to cover two urgent needs:
One: To fund broad relief programs to lift the lower and neglected classes of the population out of poverty, as well as solving certain balance of payments problems. Both will give Likud an advantage in the next general election.
Two: The steady flow of gas can be used as an incentive for improving relations with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians.
At the same time, he whisked gas out of the hands of Finance Minister Moshe Kachlon (55). Although he had campaigned on a pledge to end monopolies, the Kulanu leader bowed to Netanyahu’s show of muscle without demur.
Using rival Internet sites to replace hostile TV channels
3. Plagued year after year by the domestic media’s hostile treatment of himself in person and his Likud party, Netanyahu is striking back against his tormentors. He will finish dismantling the National Broadcasting Authority, whose news programs are a regular platform for the opposition, and also hit the firms which run Television Channel 2. Instead, he plans to establish two new channels, produced by two rival Internet sites – Wallah and i24News. TV Channel 10 will disappear under the burden of debt which the government will no longer cover.
Political circles in Jerusalem wonder how long Netanyahu can maintain his manic drive for change, and still stand up to the unexpected, which is an endemic fact of life in the Middle East.
For now, largely because of the opposition’s weaknesses, he is paradoxically emerging as a strong leader and his government is beginning to look ready and capable of moving energetically into action.