Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
‘Ministerial musical chairs” is the best description of the wheeling and dealing that has gone on over the past few weeks as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has worked to pacify egos and reward sycophants on his way to passing out ministry portfolios.
The resulting ministerial assignments have provided ample material for political satire, but reflect little logic other than the logic of political jockeying.
Among other anomalies, we now can boast of a science, technology, and space minister with no background in science; a ministerial portfolio in the Communications Ministry that gives the holder of the portfolio no real authority; and a transportation minister who also holds the intelligence portfolio.
However, the worst casualty of this “ministerial musical chairs” has been foreign policy. There are no fewer than six different politicians who have received responsibilities rightfully belonging to the Foreign Ministry.
Negotiations with the Palestinians will be managed by Silvan Shalom, who also happens to be interior minister.
Shalom will also be responsible for strategic relations with the US.
Iran’s nuclear weapons program will be under the purview of Yuval Steinitz, who is energy minister, at least for the next few months. After that Gilad Erdan, who is internal security minister, will take over. Erdan will also be responsible for combating anti-Israel propaganda and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement as head of public diplomacy.
Another function that theoretically could be seen as being within the purview of the Foreign Ministry is the Liaison Bureau, which seeks to foster relations with Russian- speaking Jews in the Diaspora. Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin will be responsible for that.
Naftali Bennett will apparently be responsible for the rest of the Jews in exile as Diaspora minister.
While Tzipi Hotovely was appointed deputy foreign minister, it is unclear what precisely will be her powers.
Technically, no full-fledged foreign minister is serving above her, which would imply that she has more leeway.
However, most of her responsibilities have been allotted to others. Also, with the appointment of Dr. Dore Gold as director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Netanyahu has signaled that he intends to have direct influence over what is going on inside.
In any event, parceling out roles traditionally belonging to the Foreign Ministry will generate no small amount of confusion. When EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini makes her next visit to Israel, for instance, she will have to shuttle from one minister to the next: Shalom for Israeli-Palestinian talks; Steinitz or Erdan (depending on how soon she arrives) for Iran; and Hotovely, Gold, Netanyahu or someone else for other matters.
Israel must prepare to face major challenges on the foreign policy front – whether the Palestinians’ increasing resort to international fora such the UN, FIFA, and the International Criminal Court, or increasing impatience in the EU and the White House with a lack of Israeli diplomatic initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians. What is needed is not less but more foreign policy coherence.
Decentralizing Foreign Ministry functions has been demoralizing for the many talented career diplomats stationed locally and abroad with years of experience and contacts. By outsourcing strategic relations with the US to Shalom, or by appointing Erdan to head the effort against delegitimization of Israel, Netanyahu is sending out a message to the many ministry employees who are experts in these fields: Your skills are not needed. At least, that is the way it is being interpreted by many in the ministry.
Divvying up the ministry’s functions among a number of ministers would not be so bad if the goal were to enable each minister to devote more time and energy to his or her job. However, one gets the impression that Netanyahu’s intention was not to improve the system but to resolve narrow political interests. He awarded ministerial positions to those Likud legislators who emerged from the party’s internal elections the strongest, while at the same time making sure no single politician is given the sort of power that can be leveraged to seriously challenge Netanyahu’s leadership of the Likud.
Israel’s core interests are being sacrificed for narrow political goals. Israel’s foreign policy will suffer as a result.