Netanyahu keeps hand on security, foreign relations, energy levers
Early Monday, March 18, Prime Minister Binyamin slotted two Likud stalwarts into the last vacant cabinet posts in time to present his third government to the Knesset that afternoon.
Silvan Shalom, a Netanyahu rival, gets Electricity, Water, Negev, Galilee and a seat on the Palestinian negotiating team; Yuval Steinetz (former Finance Minister and ally) – Strategic Affairs with responsibility for the Strategic Dialogue with Washington (instead of Home Defense Minister Gilead Erdan), Intelligence, support for the Secret Services, relations with the UN, and chair of the National Nuclear Energy Commission.
The titles sound good, but in fact Netanyahu plucked some of them out of thin air to appease potential troublemakers. And in the final reckoning, he retains the real power for decision-making on security, foreign relations, national strategy, intelligence and Palestinians in his own hands, along with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.
The titles were carefully chosen for the sake of checks and balances within the coalition cabinet.
They serve to emasculate the Foreign Ministry, backhand punishment for its staff's alleged campaign to inculpate former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. This cost the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc many votes in the January general election.
They also provide trusty watchdogs for keeping Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in line in her promised role as lead negotiator with the Palestinians – if the peace process is every resuscitated.
When Sunday night, Livni called for major concessions for bringing the Palestinians to the negotiating table, defense minister Yaalon quickly slapped her down by retorting: No concessions will be extorted from us before talks.
The West Bank Settlement lobby is strongly represented at key points in government.
And finally, the prime minister has kept charge himself of Israel’s Mediterranean gas and oil bonanza.
Sunday, debkafile enumerated Netanyahu’s challenges from the four factions forming his new government coalition:After being sworn in Monday night, March 18, Binyamin Netanyahu’s third government gets down to its first order of business the next day. Does anyone know what that business is? The answer is no, because each of the components of this roughly welded coalition government – his own Likud, Yesh Atid (Future), Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) and Hatnuah – has its own well-defined political, social, economic and religious agendas.
Melding those agenda into agreed guidelines for action is obviously a Herculean or even an impossible task, which is why some top people in Jerusalem say half-jokingly that the new lineup will need “two years grace” – that is, if it lasts one year.
Even Netanyahu (“Bibi”) kidded the disgruntled members of his Likud members who didn’t make it into the abbreviated government of 22 ministers by wishing them better luck next time. That would presume his winning a fourth term and beating the record of Israel’s founder and three-term prime minister David Ben Gurion.
As this government sallies out into terra incognita, the only sure thing is that four of its new leading lights are sure of what they want – whether their stint is short or long – and the prime minister will have his work cut out to run them as a team.
1. Ehud Barak’s successor as defense minister, commando and former chief of staff Moshe Yaalon: He has won a chance, which any professional soldier must envy, to remold the Israeli Defense Forces into a national army better suited to the exigencies of the first half of the 21st century and the wars of the future.
In line with his vision, he would scrap the present structure of corps, divisions, brigades and battalions in favor of an army based on compact fighting units – mostly of special forces – each capable of acting autonomously and independent of other forces.
If Yaalon gets his way, the massive ground forces and heavy theater tanks corps will be relegated to the past. The air force and navy, with their long range missiles, submarines and fast assault ships, will no longer be structured as professional corps but revamped as forces taxed with guarding Israel’s vital strategic depth by sea and air.
However, Defense Minister Yaalon may not get the time, money or trained manpower he needs for his program, given the rapid changes overtaking the Middle East and the advances Iran is making in the pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
For US President Barack Obama, when he comes to Israel for a visit Wednesday, March 20, Yaalon’s selection as defense minister is not altogether bad news, despite his pessimism about any dealing with the Palestinians: As Strategic Affairs Minister in the previous Netanyahu government, he insisted that it was essential for any Israeli attack on Iran to have the full cooperation of the United States.
2. The former TV anchor Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid – Future) has made his political debut with a leap to the top government echelon as finance minister and carved out plum spots for his previously unknown faction members, who are as untried in government as himself.
They campaigned vigorously for military service for all, including the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arabs, and benefits for the middle class.
Now he must sit down to the forbidding task of drafting the next state budget at top speed. Netanyahu jokes about heading a provisional administration, whereas Lapid speaks seriously of the government lasting eighteen months to two years at most before it falls and an early election which dumps the prime minister of today and installs him in his place.
This calculus presents the Yesh Atid leader with a dilemma: He could try designing a popular budget, but then Netanyahu would reap the same benefits as himself in the coming election. On the other hand, he might decide to prove he is a statesman and compose a responsibly balanced budget, incorporating essential spending cuts and painful measures for the very classes he pledged to promote.
But then, he would be a fool to face the voter precipitately.
His political fortunes in the foreseeable future are therefore tied to those of the prime minister he aspires to displace, like it or not.
3. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, came in from the political cold to join the government as Justice Minister claiming that all she really wanted was to promote and lead peace talks with the Palestinians. This mission is likely to prove elusive. Not a single Palestinian official of any rank is willing to talk to her. She would also have to overcome obstacles placed in her path by many of her new colleagues in cabinet. Such as he next new minister.
4. Naftali Bennett, a software tycoon, was able to revive the fortunes of the veteran National Religious Party and repackage it as the pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home). For the horse trading with Netanyahu, he formed an alliance with Lapid and came away with a fistful of high-wire jobs: minister of industry, trade and labor, he is also tabbed to head the cabinet committees charged with finding ways and means of reducing the cost of living and breaking up the concentration of economic power, and even has also won a coveted place on the inner security cabinet now pared down from 15 to 7 members.
What Bennett has clearly demonstrated is that he wants a finger in every pie.
Netanyahu has demonstrated a gift for survival in the past. Will it carry him through his next ordeal?