Netanyahu names Eli Cohen as foreign minister; Dermer gets strategic affairs post

After internal jostling, Cohen set to rotate FM’s job with Energy Minister Israel Katz; past US envoy Dermer was also floated as leading candidate for that post

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Eli Cohen (L) and Ron Dermer (composite - Wikimedia Commons/Ofir Abe - CC BY-SA 4, and AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Eli Cohen (L) and Ron Dermer (composite - Wikimedia Commons/Ofir Abe - CC BY-SA 4, and AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Thursday that Likud MK Eli Cohen would be Israel’s next foreign minister, ending weeks of intrigue around the high-profile role.

He will be replacing Yair Lapid, who has also served as prime minister since last June.

In his speech to the Knesset ahead of the swearing-in of his government, Netanyahu also announced that longtime confidant Ron Dermer — seen as a top candidate for the job — would instead be strategic affairs minister within the Prime Minister’s Office.

It remains to be seen what responsibilities will be given to Dermer, but he has shown interest in being Netanyahu’s main adviser on ties with Washington.

Cohen, 50, headed the economy and intelligence ministries in previous Netanyahu governments.

In his military service, Cohen served in the air force, reaching the rank of major. He then embarked on a successful business career before joining the Knesset with the Kulanu party in 2015.

File: Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the United States, walks through the Capitol in Washington, Sept. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senior Likud lawmakers had been gunning for the role of Israel’s top diplomat, one of Israel’s most prominent and influential ministerial positions.

Veteran MK Israel Katz, a former foreign and finance minister, was also demanding the post. After meeting Netanyahu Wednesday evening, Katz reportedly stormed out of the room, refusing to go second in a rotation deal with Cohen.

But Katz relented Thursday and will serve as energy minister before swapping seats with Cohen. The specifics of the rotation were in flux through Thursday, with some reports saying Cohen would serve two years and then switch with Katz, and others saying Cohen would serve a year, then Katz two, and finally Cohen another year.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to then-Foreign Minister Israel Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, October 27, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP)

Netanyahu had been searching for a way to bring Dermer into the government in a top role. He considered giving the former envoy to the US the Foreign Ministry, but that was strongly contested by senior Likud members.

Netanyahu is positioning foreign policy at the center of his agenda, listing during his speech on Thursday the stopping of Iran’s nuclear program as one of his government’s top three missions. And in the government guidelines released Wednesday, deepening and expanding the Abraham Accords was delineated as a priority.

The incoming prime minister, who signed the Abraham Accords in 2020 with Bahrain, the UAE, and Morocco, has spoken several times about the possibility of peace with Saudi Arabia.

Former president Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“I think we can have a new peace initiative that will form a quantum leap for the achievement of both the Arab-Israeli conflict and ultimately, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” he said in an interview with Saudi broadcaster Al Arabiya. “And of course, I’m referring to what could be a truly remarkable historic peace with Saudi Arabia.”

At the same time, it is not clear how much power Cohen will have as foreign minister to meaningfully influence these priorities. In Netanyahu’s previous governments, he showed a preference for handling consequential issues like Iran’s nuclear program within the PMO, leaving the Foreign Ministry neutered.

Netanyahu clashed openly with the previous Democratic US president, Barack Obama, over Iran in the leadup to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Though the current occupant of the White House, Obama’s VP Joe Biden, has been pushing for the JCPOA nuclear deal to be revived, it seems increasingly unlikely, defusing a potential point of friction with Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks about Iran during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images/AFP)

On-off talks to revive the deal started in April last year between Iran and France, Germany, Britain, Russia, and China directly, and the United States indirectly.

But the indirect talks between the US and Iran, mediated by the European Union, have stalled for several months with the Islamic Republic facing protests over the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian of Kurdish origin.

Israel’s 37th government was set to be sworn in on Thursday, capping a return to power for Netanyahu as the head of the country’s most right-wing government to date.

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the swearing in ceremony of his new government at the Knesset, December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Some believe that the composition of the government will harm Israel’s standing on the world stage. On Wednesday, more than 100 former Israeli diplomats and ambassadors signed a letter to Netanyahu warning of damage to Israel’s global standing if the new government implements hard-right policies.

The former Foreign Ministry employees said they were concerned about a. backlash that could harm Israel’s alliance with the US and undo the progress of the Abraham Accords normalization agreements.

Netanyahu has largely brushed off concerns over his incoming coalition, accusing political rivals of misrepresenting its agenda while vowing not to harm LGBTQ and other minority rights.

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