Yair Lapid is an excellent interviewer. He listens, shows empathy and probes where necessary. But in an interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a couple of years ago on the weekly show he used to host, he came to the matter of economics only late in their conversation. “Challenge me,” Netanyahu urged him, “challenge me.”
“Right,” Lapid said. “I have two reservations, though. The first is that our time is almost up and the second is that I don’t understand a thing about economics, so you’ll have to give me a short answer, which someone who knows nothing about economics can understand.”
Why then, 12 hours after election results came in, with Lapid’s Yesh Atid party drawing an astounding 19 seats, was former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman suggesting that Lapid, “who spoke a ton about the middle class,” take the position of finance minister?
The short answer: because the finance ministry is where political careers go to die.
There is a beautiful side to Israel’s parliamentary politics. Almost any notion under the Israeli sun can present itself to the voters for affirmation. But over the next few weeks we will likely witness the less flattering side: the horse trading of coalition assembly. The egos, the snubs, the avarice, the imperfect union of deeply conflicting ideals and, above all, the central tension: whether to choose the proper, or politically expedient, candidate for each cabinet position.
The big three are finance, foreign affairs and defense. Let’s have a look.
Please, no, not the Treasury
The Finance Ministry is the Elba of cabinet positions. Only three people have ever continued on from the Finance Ministry to the position of prime minister: Levi Eshkol, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert. (Shimon Peres did so as well, but he inherited the top spot after Rabin was killed and did not win reelection.)
In February 2003, Ariel Sharon assembled Israel’s 30th government. The natural choice, for a prime minister still regarded with deep suspicion internationally at that time, would have been to put the eloquent, American-educated Benjamin Netanyahu at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was through this branch that Netanyahu had entered politics and he would likely shine at the position. Which was reason enough for Sharon not to appoint him.
Sharon’s biographers, Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom, explained the decision to offer Netanyahu the Finance Ministry: “The foreign minister often pops up in the newspapers grinning and clasping hands with world leaders; the minister of finance is often invisible if things go well — as the prime minister’s ratings soar — and wears a set of prominent horns when the economy takes a turn for the worse.”
A battered Netanyahu left the Finance Ministry two and a half years later, in advance of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. The resignation, submitted one week before the actual “disengagement,” was seen as a political move, a last-second leap to the right to enable a future campaign against Sharon. In the next national elections, as head of the Likud, he managed a meager 12 seats in the Knesset, the Likud’s worst-ever showing.
Olmert succeeded Netanyahu. He was finance minister for only six months. And he ascended to the prime minister position not by popular vote, at first, but in the wake of Sharon’s debilitating stroke.
It is in this light that Liberman’s suggestion should be viewed. Yesh Atid, a largely secular, capitalist, centrist party, threatens his base, which remains ill at ease among the largely Sephardi Likud grass roots. With a financial crisis brewing, Liberman would presumably love to see his new rival crucified daily in the press while he continues to strengthen Israel’s robust ties with Palau.
A final word on the Finance Ministry: Netanyahu, unlike Sharon, has a deep understanding of economics and therefore does not need a skilled economist in the role but merely someone willing to take the bullets for him. Facing a possible criminal indictment, Liberman, or his No. 2, Yair Shamir, both threats to Netanyahu, may well be offered either the gulag of the Finance Ministry or something even less attractive.
Six ministers of foreign affairs have gone on to become prime minister. Perhaps for this reason, back in 2003, Sharon appointed Silvan Shalom to the post. His English is stilted, he remains unknown abroad and is not a significant threat at home.
Olmert, after succeeding Sharon in May 2006, was out of maneuvering room when it came to appointing a foreign minister — more on that in a bit — and therefore placed Tzipi Livni, a good fit and in-house rival, in the post. She thrived. She made the Forbes Top 100 list of influential women in 2008 and 2009. And she eventually replaced him.
In this, Israel’s 33rd government, the right choice and the expedient choice for foreign minister appear to be one and the same. Lapid, an exceptional communicator, a translator of Hemingway and a lover of Bruce Springsteen, but not yet a significant rival to Netanyahu, seems like a solid pick for the slot. Although, of course, in the Machiavellian world of coalition politics, anything is possible.
Don’t mess with defense
Olmert, a master of the back-room maneuver, and incidentally a dear friend of the Lapid family — he held Yair’s father’s hand as he died — took the limit to new heights in 2006. In the past, all was fair game aside from the Defense Ministry. Israel’s position, since its inception, has always been too precarious to gamble with that crucial portfolio. Men like Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan often filled the post. Occasionally, former senior Mossad commanders like Yitzhak Shamir or former Dir. Gen. of the Defense Ministry like Shimon Peres were tapped. In the early 90s, Shamir gave the job to Moshe Arens, a former deputy director of the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).
But in May 2006, Olmert, fearing Amir Peretz’s economic agenda and forced to contend with Labor’s 19 seats in Knesset, gave Peretz the defense portfolio. He had no experience. He had served as rear-echelon captain in the military. Nine weeks later, the Second Lebanon War broke out.
Netanyahu, during the most recent term, enjoyed the best of both worlds: Ehud Barak was both supremely qualified for the position and, as the head of a splinter party in the Knesset, he represented no threat whatsoever. In the government he is now assembling, Netanyahu will have no such luck. The man most fit for the job is apparently Moshe Ya’alon, a close-lipped former chief of the General Staff. His only downside is that he has said on several occasions that he sees himself as a future prime minister. The cynical choice would be to sideline Liberman on account of legal trouble, place Shamir at defense — he served as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force, retired as a colonel and was the chairman of El Al and the IAI — and shackle Ya’alon with finance.
One hopes though that, despite the historical precedents, the state’s interest will prevail.