A ministerial fable

Netanyahu gazed around the cabinet table — the much-reduced cabinet table — took in the eager, expectant faces, and saw that it was good

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

(From left front row) Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Peres, Knesset 'elder' Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and the new Knesset's party leaders, pictured at the Knesset, February 5, 2013 (photo credit: Knesset spokesman/GPO)
(From left front row) Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Peres, Knesset 'elder' Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and the new Knesset's party leaders, pictured at the Knesset, February 5, 2013 (photo credit: Knesset spokesman/GPO)

Benjamin Netanyahu looked around his cabinet table. And he saw that it was good.

Such a refreshing change from that bloated, acrimonious collection of egotists he’d saddled himself with in the last government.

For a start, there were so few faces — just a dozen ministers this time, or 11 and a deputy, to be strictly accurate. What a far cry from the 28 who’d squeezed round the previous table, and what a terrific signal to the public of efficiency and belt-tightening. And yet this team represented almost the entire Knesset — the widest possible unity government, as he’d promised, to tackle Israel’s external and internal problems in the spirit of the common good.

It had proved so simple — so surprisingly simple, once he’d made plain he was determined to see it through — to build the new team, committed to the new vision. He’d been inspired by the electorate, by its choice of 48 newbies in the 120-member Knesset. The public had shown a preference for new faces, to foster a new climate of national service, and he was determined not to disappoint them. There’d been such a mood of optimism in parliament when all those fresh MKs were sworn in. He’d simply had to respond in kind, and to ensure that political cynicism and short-term expediency not prevail.

And it had proved so straightforward, in the constructive atmosphere he had worked to create during the coalition talks, to shrink the bureaucracy and dismantle entire unnecessary ministries. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs? Subsumed, where its key professionals belonged, within the Defense Ministry. The Ministry of Regional Development and the Development of the Negev and the Galilee? That wasn’t going to be missed. The Ministry of Public Affairs? Nobody seemed to know we’d had one in the first place. The Ministry of Improvement of Government Services? What an improvement it was to live without that one. Culture, sport, transport. Merged, slashed, gone. Ministers without portfolio? History.

How impressively ready his coalition partners had proved — again, once he’d impressed upon them that it was his way or no way — to content themselves with a single representative each at the cabinet table, deployed where they could do the most good for Israel.

He’d told them that he’d be seating only two Likud ministers alongside him — the ex-chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, a cautious, principled man who knew better than to rush into military misadventure, serving where he belonged at Defense; and that emblem of propriety and fairness, Benny Begin, booted out of the Knesset by those short-sighted Likud party members but retained in the cabinet, where he belonged, as minister of justice.

And so each of his partner parties, refreshingly putting narrow, personal concerns to the side for the sake of the national interest, had nominated their single representative, respecting his decision on their roles.

Swallowing hard, he’d dispatched his rival-to-be Yair Lapid to the Foreign Ministry. He’d chosen to see a little of his young, ambitious self in the almost as handsome, articulate, and extrovert Lapid

Swallowing hard, he’d dispatched his rival-to-be Yair Lapid to the Foreign Ministry. He’d chosen to see a little of his young, ambitious self in the almost as handsome, articulate, and extrovert Lapid. Who better than Lapid, he’d told himself — coming over all avuncular, and silencing Sara’s concerns about elevating a would-be PM to such a global springboard — to woo and win over Israel’s international critics. Lapid would surely charm visiting foreign ministers, and debate them effectively too.

Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni, with all of her experience, was a welcome face — especially now she was a little humbled, and had accepted that her party didn’t have enough MKs to justify a senior position. She would now be overseeing a range of ministerial responsibilities including energy, environment and education. With her vouching for him, and with Lapid in situ, perhaps he could yet get Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table, and make some progress this time. Yes, he’d drive a much harder territorial bargain than Ehud Olmert, but he did recognize that a bargain had to be struck.

Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich was the no-brainer choice to helm the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs — the job she wanted, the job her voters wanted her to fill.

And her more socialist excesses would be cursorily checked by the man he’d been privileged to persuade to serve as finance minister — Stanley Fischer. How smartly Stanley had regulated the nation’s banks, how smoothly he had led Israel through the global financial crisis, how angry he had become at government incompetence, and how delighted he had been to reconsider his retirement from public life and take his seat in the cabinet once he internalized that things were going to be different from now on.

Obviously, there could no place at this stage for Avigdor Liberman in this new cabinet, characterized by its scrupulous respect for the law. So Yisrael Beytenu would be represented by the quietly effective ex-cop Yitzhak Aharonovitch, one of the relatively few successful ministers in the outgoing government, maintaining continuity at the merged Ministry of Police and Home Front Defense. If Liberman beat the charges of fraud and breach of trust, they’d agreed he’d maintain his ministerial time out and succeed Ron Prosor as Israel’s envoy to the UN — the one forum where Liberman’s characteristic tough-talking could hardly further alienate Israel, and might even have a certain sobering impact.

Naftali Bennett, for his part, had accepted that his hardline policies meant he couldn’t serve as foreign minister, his conviction that settlements must not be dismantled under any circumstances made him unsuitable for defense, and his inexperience at national level would make him a poor choice for finance. But the Interior Ministry was a good fit — a well-run hierarchy where the bureaucrats could help ensure an inexperienced minister could thrive.

He’d been only too pleased to invite back United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman as deputy minister of health. The not-quite-Zionist UTJ preferred to steer clear of full ministerial responsibility, but Litzman had proved an involved and astute steward of the nation’s health.

He’d thought his most daring appointment was that of Ariel Atias at religious affairs. He’d ignored the sparkly ex-felon Aryeh Deri, and the stolid Eli Yishai, and — after a few words in Ovadia Yosef’s ear — secured the appointment of the sharp, hard-working Atias.

His discussions with the Shas and UTJ spiritual leaderships left him in no doubt as to how complicated it would be to find a viable middle ground on ultra-Orthodox national service. But all the right pieces were in place to try. The warring sides were within his government, working for compromise, not outside it, bent on preventing a deal.

But the choice of Atias was small potatoes compared to his appointment of the Hadash legislator Hana Sweid as minister for minority affairs. Sweid was not a well-known Arab MK, because he didn’t sail on blockade-breaking flotillas, hail Osama bin Laden, or spy for Hezbollah. He quietly and effectively represented Arab Israelis, seeking the equality of opportunity they craved. What a signal his appointment sent to that fifth of the Israeli electorate, so long cursed by its extremist representatives. And what a reminder to the international community that Israel meant what it said about being both a Jewish state and a democratic one, pledged to equality for all of its citizens.

Netanyahu looked around his cabinet table. And before he opened this first meeting, he allowed himself a brief moment of self-praise. He remembered what he’d said on February 5, at the small ceremony after the new MKs were sworn in, about representing all of Israel, all facets of the population. “Wow, Bibi,” he said silently, as he smiled at the eager, expectant faces turned toward him from around the room, “you really did good this time.”

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