Netanyahu appoints security cabinet of 15

Cabinet equally representing 'dovish,' 'hawkish' ministers; gov't approves two-year budget proposal.

ehud barak 248.88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
ehud barak 248.88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu kicked off his new term Sunday by assembling a huge 15-member security cabinet, giving equal representation to "dovish" ministers and to those considered "in the middle," and with a slight tilt toward the cabinet "hawks." The previous government had a 12-member security cabinet. The body is a key decision-making forum dealing with matters of war and peace in any government, though many then break down the process even further - as Netanyahu is expected to do - to an inner cabinet, and even sometimes to a "kitchen cabinet." Among the "hawks" in the new security cabinet are the Likud's Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin and Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar; and Israel Beiteinu's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau. The "doves" are the Likud's Regional Cooperation and Negev and Galilee Development Minister Silvan Shalom and Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor; and Labor's Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Industry and Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. And the perceived moderates on the security cabinet are Netanyahu, Likud Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, and Shas's Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias. The law mandates that the prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, finance minister, justice minister and public security minister must be members of this body, which cannot exceed half the members of the full cabinet. Any other members are discretionary selections. In addition to the 15 permanent members, Netanyahu also announced that there would be five observers, who can come to the meetings and take part in the discussions, but cannot vote. Those members are the Likud's Culture Minister Limor Livnat and Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled; Labor's Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon; and Habayit Hayehudi's Science Minister Daniel Herschkowitz. By law, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz and the head of the National Security Council, Uzi Arad, have permanent observer status at the meetings. One of the cabinet's first orders of business on Sunday was to appoint Arad as the head of what is expected to be a much empowered NSC, which will be in charge of setting the agenda for the weekly security cabinet meetings. Arad was Netanyahu's foreign policy adviser from 1997 to 1999, after serving for many years in the Mossad. The Obama administration recently reportedly assured Netanyahu that Arad, who has been unable to enter the US for the past two years because his name was mentioned in connection to the Larry Franklin espionage case, will indeed receive a visa to enter the US. Franklin, a Defense Department official, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2006 for passing classified materials to AIPAC officials, who then allegedly transferred them to Israel. At the start of Sunday's cabinet meeting, which steered completely clear of any diplomatic/security issues, Netanyahu said his new government would be guided by "unity, responsibility and work." "The ministers and I have a heavy responsibility, and there is much work ahead of us," he said. "Today we will roll up our sleeves and get to work." The cabinet unanimously approved Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz's proposal for a budget for the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years, the first time in the state's history that the Knesset will approve a two-year budget. The proposal was backed by the prime minister and will be brought for Knesset approval on Monday. Netanyahu said the purpose of passing a two-year budget was meant to spare the government the pain of having to deal with the 2010 budget in another six months' time. "Nevertheless, we reserve the right to be flexible according to the developments of the financial crisis," he said. The cabinet also approved Steinitz's proposal to support legislation in the Knesset to extend the deadline to pass the 2009 state budget. By law, a new government whose term begins before a state budget is passed falls automatically if it does not pass the budget within 45 days of its formation. That would give Netanyahu and his novice finance minister a deadline of May 14. The government wants the Knesset to instead give the government 106 days to approve the document. In other steps taken by the cabinet in its first meeting, a session one cabinet source said was "business-like" and not marked by a feeling of celebration, the government decided to freeze plans approved by the Olmert government to build a new NIS 650 million office and residence for the prime minister in the government compound in Jerusalem. The government made clear that it was not cancelling the project, already believed to have cost the state more than NIS 100m. in infrastructure work. Rather the plan, which has been widely criticized as overly grandiose, would be reevaluated and that Netanyahu would be presented with "a more modest proposal." Government sources said much of the infrastructure work already carried out was done to build an underground bunker that would serve the new residence and offices in any event, even if what was built "above ground" was trimmed down considerably. The government also decided to set up an interministerial committee to develop plans for an emergency fund to assist financially strapped social welfare aid organizations. In addition, the government approved the establishment of a committee, headed by Netanyahu, to reform the Israel Lands Administration. He said that reform of the ILA was necessary to bring down housing prices, and that this would go a long way toward closing the country's economic and social gaps. Contrary to previous expectations, the cabinet did not, at its first meeting, deal with the politically loaded issue of electoral reform.