PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party meeting last year. (Reuters).
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For almost three years Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has served as Israel’s foreign minister.
With legal woes building against him and the possibility that he will need to focus on defending himself against these allegations, now might be the appropriate time to appoint a full-time foreign minister. This will provide stability and continuity as Jerusalem confronts numerous regional and global challenges.
In March and July 2016, Netanyahu defended his choice not to appoint a foreign minister, telling the Knesset that the ministry was functioning well.
Despite criticism, he said that “it is not Israel that is isolated in its ties to the international community, but rather the countries that do not have ties with Israel, and this number is continually decreasing.” He also responded to criticism that the Foreign Ministry needs more resources, saying it was functioning at the same level under the current government as under the last one.
In some cases, the foreign minister’s responsibilities overlap with those of other members of the coalition.
Naftali Bennett serves as Diaspora affairs minister and Gilad Erdan holds the Strategic Affairs portfolio. Powerful deputy ministers, such as Michael Oren in the Prime Minister’s Office and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, take up some of the work load that a traditional foreign minister might bear. This has allowed the prime minister to claim that he is doing a “full-time” job as foreign minister.
Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to also be foreign minister. Of the 17 foreign ministers Israel has had, several have worn two hats. Moshe Sharett, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir did, but never for so long. In addition, the fact that Israel now has relations with 161 countries means the burdens of the foreign minister are greater than in the 1950s or 1980s.
Netanyahu has done an impressive job building close relationships with Russia and India as well as through his outreach to Africa and Asia. Some of these are important foreign policy achievements based on personal connections to foreign leaders such as those he has established with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, the prime minister could continue to conduct this important work as prime minister.
The prime minister is increasingly forced to focus on issues closer to home. Last week, a former top aide admitted to cutting a bribery deal in a case known as the Bezeq-Walla affair, or Case 4000. The police have recommended indicting Netanyahu in two other cases involving gifts and alleged media influence peddling.
The decision on whether to issue indictments in these cases now sits with the attorney-general. A fourth case involving the purchase of submarines is also being built against defense officials and aides to Netanyahu.
Fifty-nine percent of the public believe the investigations will damage the prime minister’s ability to run the country, according to a Smith Research poll taken for The Jerusalem Post. The poll was conducted after the police recommendation to indict Netanyahu in two cases, but before the Case 4000 details were reported.
In addition, Washington is finalizing a peace plan that it says will make demands on Israel and the Palestinians.
With the US Embassy scheduled to move to the capital in May, there are chances that the stalled peace process and the embassy move will create an opening for Palestinian violence.
The peace process is not the only trouble on the horizon. Clashes in Syria after an Iranian drone penetrated Israel’s airspace point to increasingly likelihood of a conflict with Hezbollah. Israel also has issues on its plate in Europe, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding the new Holocaust law in Poland. Might Israel have been able to soften that law with the help of a full-time foreign minister? Jerusalem needs to project strength and stability abroad. It is one of the few countries that has weathered the last seven years of turmoil in the region successfully. To continue to do that it needs a strong government – with a prime minister and a foreign minister who can independently tackle challenges as they come.