Just over halfway through his current term as Israeli Prime Minister – he took office on March 31, 2009 – Binyamin Netanyahu feels steady enough in the saddle to quietly reshuffle cabinet allies, drop key advisers and take charge himself of defense and foreign relations.
Most significantly, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Jerusalem report exclusively, he has turned to hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as his policy-making partner and dropped Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
This first became evident Sunday, June 19, when the cabinet approved the transfer of the World Zionist Organization's Settlement Division from the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture, which is headed by a member of Barak's party, to the supervision of the Prime Minister's Office.
This decision was more than a minor bureaucratic shift. It advises the prime minister to consult with the defense minister on department activities. But that is just a formality. In practical terms, Defense Minister Barak' has lost his veto power over settlement construction on the West Bank and discovered he has lost his footing as the prime minister's top adviser in all diplomatic and security-related affairs, a favored position he held from the early days of the Netanyahu government.
Barak is not the only casualty. Netanyahu has moved over to his own desk the discreet, high-level diplomatic exchanges between Jerusalem and Washington, long handled by his closest and most trusted adviser Yitzhak Molcho.
No part of this function was transferred to any other aide, including his newly-appointed National Security Adviser Maj. Gen (Res) Yaacov Ami-Dror.
Netanyahu goes it alone without advisers
The new arrangement surfaced last week when Netanyahu himself led the talks with a visiting White House delegation led by David Hale, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, and Dennis Ross, President Barack Obama's Special Middle East Adviser and Senior Director of the Central Region at the National Security Council. Molcho who had maintained regular contact with these visitors was not present.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, the prime minister these days confers with only one adviser before some of his decisions: Foreign Minister Lieberman, head of the Israel Beitenu party. Other cabinet members are left in the dark.
This quiet revolution in Jerusalem has five main features:
1. For the first time in five years – since Ariel Sharon was felled by a massive stroke – an Israeli prime minister has undertaken solo management of Israel's defense and foreign policies.
2. Netanyahu has assumed quasi-presidential prerogatives like his peers in some European countries. Shimon Peres, who officiates in the largely ceremonial post of president, has been compensated with the informal title of national peace ambassador, in pursuit of which he can travel around the world so long as he does not interfere with the prime minister.
3. Netanyahu has demoted the defense minister and defense establishment from policy initiators to performers of the policies he hands down. Lieberman has been restored to the personal position of confidence he once occupied as Director General of the Prime Minister's office during Netanyahu's first term as prime minister (1996-1998) and before he struck out and established his own party.
Netanyahu and Lieberman operating in harness carried off the following feats:
– Netanyahu got away with rebuffing President Obama's prescription of the 1967 lines (with mutual land swaps) as the basis for peace negotiations with the Palestinians as set forth in his May 19 Middle East address. The US President was later moved to qualify this premise although he said he would get back to it in the distant future. (See the item on Barack Obama and the Arab Revolt).
– Obama agreed to veto any Arab or Palestinian motion for the UN Security Council to accept the Palestinian state as a member of the world body.
– Under the direct oversight of the prime minister, security events and disorders emanating from Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in recent weeks were firmly handled (excepting only the Syrian Majd al-Shams infiltration of May 15) and the Israeli Defense Forces is being briskly prepared for the possible outbreak of another potential Palestinian uprising. The military needed slapping into shape and responded well to clear directives.
– While the Palestinians can count on an automatic majority at the UN General Assembly for a unilateral resolution recognizing a Palestinian state, Israeli diplomacy has mounted a successful campaign to convince the world's leading powers to cast their votes against it and call on the Palestinians to return to negotiations with Israel instead.
Turkey backs away from pro-Palestinian flotilla
– A diplomatic push integrated with widely-televised military preparations for stopping any pro-Palestinian flotillas heading for Gazan waters succeeded in getting a big international protest armada led by a Turkish vessel cancelled.
– Israel's new diplomatic momentum has finally dented Mahmoud Abbas' stubborn insistence on his UN initiative in preference to talks with Israel. Monday, June 20, he allowed that he might consider going back to the negotiating table and postponing the Palestinian push at the United Nations.
Some of these advances can no doubt be attributed to Netanyahu and Lieberman playing their cards very close to their chests and guarding against premature leaks. They have covered a certain amount of ground so far. It remains to be seen where they go next.