Exit of blunt-talking Liberman opens horse race for new top diplomat

There’s no shortage of candidates for the job of foreign minister, and a whole world watching Netanyahu’s choice

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Avigdor Liberman (left), and Benjamin Netanyahu sharing a private word in January 2013. (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Avigdor Liberman (left), and Benjamin Netanyahu sharing a private word in January 2013. (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

Welcome to Israeli political musical chairs. A few months ago, it seemed almost certain that Avigdor Liberman’s half-decade reign in the Foreign Ministry would come to an end. His Yisrael Beytenu party was doing abysmally in the polls ahead of the March 17 elections, and why would the new prime minister — at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog were in a tight race for the job — give the coalition’s second-most coveted job to the leader of a party with only a handful of seats?

Moreover, the blunt-talking, frequently undiplomatic Liberman didn’t even want to be foreign minister: He was demanding the defense portfolio, making it a condition for entering the coalition. The incumbent, Moshe Ya’alon, went to see Netanyahu to implore him to keep him in the defense job.

But when the music stopped after Election Day, things looked very different. Netanyahu’s Likud party won a landslide victory, and the old-new prime minister vowed to build a religious-right-wing coalition. Yisrael Beytenu’s six seats seemed crucial to create a stable majority — without Liberman’s party the coalition would have only a razor-thin majority, with 61 out of 120 seats.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home party, was eyeing the Foreign Ministry too. But after Bennett announced last week that he was satisfied becoming education minister, it was absolutely certain that Liberman could safely anticipate another few years as the country’s top diplomat.

Except on Monday, it was all change again: Two days before the deadline for building a new coalition, Liberman announced that he wouldn’t be joining the coalition and was quitting as foreign minister.

Who will follow in Liberman’s footsteps? Predictions are plainly risky, but several potential candidates for the job are doing everything to curry the prime minister’s favor:

Gilad Erdan. The current interior minister, who came in first in the Likud’s party primaries, is clearly the front-runner for the job. Not too long ago, he seriously considered accepting an offer to become Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York. He eventually opted to remain in Jerusalem, determined to enrich his ministerial CV en route to the top spot one day. Foreign affairs would be a major stepping stone.

Minister of Energy and Water Silvan Shalom, March 12, 2014. (photo credit: Flash 90)
Minister of Energy and Water Silvan Shalom, March 12, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

Silvan Shalom. The former presidential candidate has already served as foreign minister, from 2003 until 2006, and covets a comeback. A veteran of five governments, the Tunisia-born Shalom speaks French and Arabic and placed high enough in the Likud primaries (#6) to be considered a credible candidate. But Shalom and Netanyahu haven’t always had the best relationship, and also their significant others aren’t best friends either — which, crazy as it might sound, might not be of negligible significance for Shalom’s political future.

Yuval Steinitz. The former philosopher and finance minister currently serves as minister for international relations (a mostly meaningless title he received together with the intelligence and strategic affairs portfolios). But that non-ministry allowed him to meet with visiting dignitaries whenever the foreign minister was unavailable. Steinitz is also Netanyahu’s point man for Iran, briefing the press and, more importantly, traveling regularly to world capitals to urge leaders not to sign a bad nuclear deal. His efforts may not have met with much success, but it wasn’t for want of trying. And like Erdan, he has always remained loyal to Netanyahu, which might count more than his persuasive talents or his placement in the Likud primaries (he came in 13th).

Tzachi Hanegbi (photo credit: Flash90)
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (photo credit: Flash90)

Tzachi Hanegi. A close confidant of the prime minister, Hanegbi serves as deputy foreign minister and has announced his interest to move into the bigger office across the hall. At 12th slot on the Likud slate, though, he may have the lowest chance of the Likud wannabes for the job.

The prize could still go to Bennett, Herzog or Livni

Of course, it is by no means guaranteed that the foreign portfolio will go to the Likud. Other potential scenarios include Bennett dropping his newfound interest in the education system and relaunching his bid for the Foreign Ministry. Or maybe he’ll want both jobs, and the Diaspora affairs portfolio he’s been promised.

There are those who still believe in a national unity government, and see opposition leader Herzog as foreign minister. Labor chief Herzog continues to deny any intention of joining the fourth Netanyahu government. But this is Israeli politics, remember, and the music’s still playing.

Another unlikely — but, hey, not impossible — scenario sees Tzipi Livni and her Hatnua party breaking away from the Herzog-led Zionist Union faction, and returning to the coveted ministry, which she headed in 2006.

Finally, Netanyahu could choose to keep the job for himself, if only for the time being. That way, at least he might know what the foreign minister is up to.

The Herzog and Livni options are the only ones that could tangibly alter foreign policy, as both are outspoken advocates of the two-state solution, while the other likely candidates — with the debatable exception of Netanyahu himself — are decidedly not.

Israel’s closest allies, in Washington, Berlin, London, Canberra and Prague, are watching closely to see how Netanyahu handles the Palestinian issue. His choice of foreign minister will be a major barometer.

Except that the choice, when the music stops, will be determined first and foremost by his domestic political imperatives.

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