When Benjamin Netanyahu pulled Dan Meridor and Benny Begin out of the warehouse for political relics and brought them back to Likud ahead of the elections, it seemed like a winning campaign gimmick. The two party princes with their sparkling clean image, who had angrily left Likud and the first Netanyahu government a decade earlier, and failed in their independent political adventures, now granted Netanyahu a public seal of approval. They confirmed his claims that he had changed.
When they were given positions in the new government lacking substance - Meridor as intelligence minister and Begin as a minister without portfolio - they were laughed at for once again succumbing to Bibi's promises and being left with nothing. In addition, the media criticized Meridor this week for refusing to take up the post to negotiate captured soldier Gilad Shalit's release.
Nonetheless, after two months, it seems Begin and Meridor are playing an essential part in Netanyahu's government - as guardians of democracy and opponents of Liebermanism. Their challenge of the so-called Nakba law, along with fellow cabinet member Michael Eitan, helped shelve the bill; they cited the need to preserve freedom of expression. Labor ministers preceded them in opposition, but it was Likud's opposition that was more important and averted a damaging stain on the lawbooks. Likud's opposition blocked an onslaught of right-wing legislation.
Begin and Meridor's opposition prevented former justice minister Daniel Friedmann from staying on in the current government. The two men's opposition is still pending on the bill requiring a majority of 65 MKs, instead of a regular majority, for a no-confidence vote to bring down a government. They say this opposes democracy's fundamental principles and warn that it would produce a minority government that has trouble functioning.
At a time of radical public discourse, pragmatism and racist bills, it's a good thing we have people in the government committed to the democracy of past years and who remember that Likud is rooted in liberalism. But in recent years Likud has focused on opposing diplomatic compromises and supporting aggressive security policies. It's a good thing we have people on the right who care about the legal system and minority rights. Begin and Meridor, who were absent from the political arena during the cynical years of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, are using a language that has nearly become extinct in Israeli political discourse.
Meridor and Begin are not future candidates for prime minister and don't have massive support in Likud. Their political impact stems from their experience and public standing. Meridor, who favors diplomatic compromise and dividing territory, is meant to connect Netanyahu to the "center-left" elites who have become alienated from Bibi. He is also meant to help out in the negotiations with the Americans.
Begin has a unique standing as an ideological symbol of the right, both because of his father, but also because of his stubborn opposition to the Oslo Accords, which led him to join the rightist Rehavam Ze'evi at the polls. Netanyahu recognizes that Begin is a key figure who can either legitimize the prime minister's diplomatic efforts or ignite a rebellion against him. What Begin accepts - evacuating outposts, for example - the party's Knesset faction will accept. Begin is happy in government, and it's hard to imagine that he'll rush to leave it as he once did.
In the coming weeks Netanyahu will have to decide what he prefers: good relations with U.S. President Barack Obama or barricading himself behind the settlements. Whichever direction he chooses, he will need Meridor to market the decision to the public, and Begin to maintain the Knesset faction and coalition. These two men are guarding the towers of Netanyahu's government.
Most importantly, it's a good thing that among the deciders on whether to embark on war against Iran, we have two people with knowledge and experience in security matters like Meridor and Begin.
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