Binyamin Netanyahu this week launched his fourth coalition government in 17 years. It rests on a wafer-thin majority of 61 members of the 120-seat Knesset and is composed of his Likud party, Habayit Hayehudi (pro-settlement) Kulanu (pro-social equality) and two ultra-religious groupings, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
This lineup has been widely labeled “rightist” by the Israeli media, in contrast to the “leftist” opposition Zionist Union party.
Both labels are simplistic. Three out of the five coalition partners, Likud, Kulanu and Shas, while conservative, are broadly amenable to territorial concessions to the Palestinians, in return for peace and normal relations with the Arab world.
But labels are hard to erase, especially when adopted freely by President Barack Obama to justify his refusal to accept Netanyahu and insistence on denouncing the new government, not yet sworn in, as opposed to concessions for peace.
Even before Netanyahu finished assembling his lineup, the US President urged European figures to get started on a UN Security Council draft resolution approving an independent Palestinian state – as debkafile was the first to reveal. (See HOT POINTS of May 6.)
The Obama administration is cracking a whip to force the Netanyahu government to end the rift with the Palestinians – although that rift was initiated in the first place – not by Israel but by the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who turned his back on US-sponsored talks and hared off on a unilateral track.
Netanyahu would prefer Herzog as foreign minister
If Netanyahu refuses to toe the line, Washington holds the option of promoting a UN Security Council resolution accepting Palestinian statehood. If Israel obeys, then the option will be delayed or put on ice.
During his former term, the prime minister, accepting the need for a dovish figure to lead talks with the Palestinians, gave his justice minister Tzipi Livni the job, sending his close adviser Yitzhak Molcho to work alongside her as watchdog.
That didn’t work, mainly because she was not really up to the task and because the Americans, like the Palestinians, knew that Netanyahu had the last word.
When the government in which she served broke up last year, Livni hitched her tiny faction onto the leading opposition Labor party, and was welcomed aboard by Yitzhak Herzog with the post of co-leader of the new Zionist Union.
In his new administration, Netanyahu would like to keep the foreign affairs portfolio for the moderate Herzog, who has good connections with the Obama administration. But for now, Herzog prefers to stay on the opposition benches.
The Dayan story is an instructive precedent
This left the prime minister acting as interim foreign minister until the right candidate was found.
But now, with the US-European Security Council step hanging over his head, Netanyahu needs to find a full-time foreign minister in a hurry.
The candidate for this post needs to be innovative, bold, brave, and experienced in overt and secret diplomacy – altogether a rare combination of traits, which recall the outstanding figure of the late Moshe Dayan who, in 1977 turned Israeli politics on its head by crossing the floor from Labor to serve as foreign minister under the newly-elected Menahem Begin.
The Dayan story is not just a testament to the volatility of Israeli politics, but also shows how artificial are such labels as “right” or “left” when attached to Israel’s complex political groupings.
In the May 1977 general election, the distinguished war hero Moshe Dayan was avidly courted by the two main parties, Likud (then known as Herut) and Labor.
Dayan had always been a member of the ruling Labor party. But before putting his name down on the slate, he asked its leader, the late Yitzhak Rabin, for a commitment to call a repeat election before accepting any Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.
Rabin refused. They worked out a compromise formula, and Dayan agreed to run for Labor.
Begin picked the right minister to negotiate peace with Egypt
Labor had led every Israeli government until then, with Begin fixed in position as leader of the opposition from 1948.
But Begin too had his eye on Dayan, not just as an eminent soldier but as a seasoned statesman – highly regarded in Washington, and just what the former Irgun leader needed to start building his image as a sound, reasonable national leader. The Likud leader had singled Dayan out as the right man to carry forward his first task as prime minister.
But when he approached Dayan, he too was faced with a condition. Begin must pledge to refrain from annexing any part of the West Bank during peace talks with Arab states, should they be launched.
Begin refused, and Dayan decided to stick with Labor.
But when Begin, contrary to all expectations, won the 1977 election and came to power, Dayan abruptly switched camps and joined his administration as foreign minister, for which his former comrades in Labor never forgave him.
But by then, Dayan had had been sent by Begin on the greatest mission of his life. A short time after the election, he arrived in Morocco (then an enemy state) wearing a wig and sunglasses.
On Sept. 16, 1977, King Hassan arranged for him to meet Dr. Hassan Touhami, personal adviser to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Their conversation marked a historic breakthrough to direct talks between Israel and Egypt, which led to the epic moment of the Egyptian president’s visit to Jerusalem, and the signing of the first Israeli-Arab peace pact in 1979.