Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Which ministry for Yair Lapid?

Before the latest election, Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman said that after the election he would break Likud Beitenu back into its two component parts: Likud (20 seats) and Israel Beitenu (17 seats). This would make his party the third largest party in the ruling coalition that Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to form and leave Likud with only one more seat than Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party. This would strengthen the bargaining position of both Lapid's party and Israel Beitenu vis a vis the Likud. Since Lieberman has made no secret of his wanting to replace Netanyahu as the leader of the Israeli Right, and the media during the election campaign was so full of portraits of Naftali Bennett of Jewish Home, expect him to carry out his pledge.  

Normally a party in the position of Yesh Atid would be offered a choice of either the finance or foreign affairs ministries. Lapid has no expertise or background in either area. From a vanity and publicity point of view, the latter ministry would be more advantageous as it would allow him to be constantly in the Israeli and international media in a positive light meeting with world leaders. Whereas as finance minister he would have to be cast as the villain by cutting Israel's blotted national budget. He might be better off either taking a lesser ministry that would be closer to one of the reform agendas he campaigned upon, or deferring to one of the experts who was elected on his party's list.

In Israel traditionally the defense ministry is the most powerful office after the premiership, followed by foreign affairs and then finance. (Foreign affairs beat out the defense ministry only once, from June 1977 to October 1979 when former Defense Minister Dayan occupied it during the peace negotiations with Egypt.) This is at variance with most Western European countries where finance beats out both defense and foreign affairs. In Washington the State Department has always been the most prestigious cabinet post followed by the War/Defense Department and then the Treasury. Before June 1, 1967 when Moshe Dayan became defense minister the norm was for prime ministers to serve as their own defense ministers. After Dayan the norm was for a former senior officer or defense technocrat to fill the ministry, except when the prime minister was himself such a person and wanted to reserve it for himself as Yitzhak Rabin did.

Former Barak political advisor and Mossad political analyst Yossi Alpher discusses the available candidates to fill that role. There are four: Moshe "Boogie Ya'alon of the Likud, Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the defunct Independence Party, and Yair Shamir, son of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, of Israel Beitenu. Ya'alon, Mofaz, and Barak are all former chiefs of staff and both Barak and Mofaz have served as defense ministers and Ya'alon has served as security minister dealing with external security threats i.e. Iran. Shamir is an interesting candidate as he fits both of the normal post-1967 slots: he is a former Air Force fighter pilot and engineer who retired with the rank of colonel after 25 years service and then became a defense industrialist in the aeronautics industry. As a member of Israel Beitenu, he would fulfill a major coalition-building need for Netanyahu, even if Netanyahu would rather appoint his former IDF commander Barak as his defense minister, who under Israeli law does not need to be a member of the Knesset. Mofaz with only two seats to offer the coalition has little bargaining power, but he could settle for a lesser ministry in the hope of returning to the ministry that he held under Prime Minister Sharon. After all Sharon settled for becoming agriculture minister in 1977 after he merged his Shlomzion party with the Likud after winning only two seats. He then became defense minister in 1981 before losing the ministry only nineteen months later because of his role in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in Beirut in 1982. 

Barak could also return to the private sector as a highly-paid consultant and lecturer as Rabin did during his wilderness years in order to repay those who loaned him the money to pay the fine for his wife's illegal American dollar account in 1977. Since then both Barak and Netanyahu spent time in the private sector earning money as consultants. Barak's political career path so far has followed roughly that of Rabin. After being released from the IDF in 1995 he became interior minister in Rabin's government as soon as he was legally eligible. He then served as foreign minister under Peres for six months before Labor lost power. Then he became Labor leader and then prime minister in June 1999. After an even shorter term than Rabin's first term, Barak was thrust back into the political wilderness. He returned in 2007 to become Labor leader and replace Emir Peretz as defense minister. Now, after more than five years--approximately the same amount of time that Rabin spent as defense minister in the late 1980s, he is going into the wilderness again. But unlike Rabin his chances of returning and ever becoming prime minister are minimal. He will have to settle for being Israel's fourth most successful Arab-fighter politician after Rabin, Sharon, and Dayan. As one of Israel's three former Arab-fighters to become prime minister he achieved an office that eluded not only Moshe Dayan, but also Ezer Weizman and Yigal Allon, two other successful Arab-fighter politicians.   

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