After six months of deadlock, the proverbial white smoke has gone up from the Knesset building in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid have agreed, at long last, on the identity of the next chair of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee: current deputy foreign minister Ze’ev Elkin.
The appointment, approved in the Knesset House Committee on Monday, ends a bitter, damaging struggle between Netanyahu and Lapid for control of the committee — with a clear win for Netanyahu.
The committee, which constitutes the key elected body supervising and auditing Israel’s powerful and sometimes secretive security services, has gone without a chair since Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman quit as its chairman last November to resume his post as foreign minister.
Without a chairman, the committee could not meet under Knesset rules, and so could not approve or audit defense budgets, oversee the security services or make key decisions related to Israel’s foreign policy institutions. It failed to pass the 2014 defense budget for months until Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, armed with special dispensation from the Knesset House Committee, convened a special meeting of the FADC under a temporary chairman to approve the most urgent allocations. The committee has since met several times, but always under a temporary arrangement with alternating chairs.
The political impasse was causing real damage to Israel’s security services, according to advocacy groups who petitioned the High Court of Justice in recent weeks over the delay. In response to a High Court inquiry, the Knesset House Committee promised to approve a chairman by Monday, the start of the Knesset summer session.
Netanyahu originally preferred Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, a former committee chair himself, to hold the post, while Lapid wanted to appoint his confidant, MK Ofer Shelah.
For Netanyahu, keeping such a critical security post in the Likud was essential to his governing strategy. He has made it a point to keep all foreign policy and defense posts, whether in the cabinet or in parliament, in the hands of his Likud-Beytenu faction. Meanwhile, Lapid wants to win for his nascent Yesh Atid party its first significant defense or foreign policy post.
The deal approved on Monday — by unanimous vote in the Knesset House Committee — keeps the FADC chairmanship in the Likud, but denies Netanyahu the complete victory of appointing Hanegbi. Instead, Hanegbi will replace Elkin as deputy foreign minister, while Elkin and Coalition Chairman Yariv Levin (Likud) will hold the committee chairmanship in rotation, with the first 18 months going to Elkin and the last 18 to Levin.
Yesh Atid will get a consolation prize, a deputy minister post, though it is not immediately clear in which ministry or what actual powers it will wield.