MK Ofer Shelah
MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), right, with Finance Minister Yair Lapid. Photo by Michal Fattal
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The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is one of the most important in the parliament. Its role is to supervise the government in the areas of war and diplomacy. Its members, or a small number of them in its various subcommittees dealing with sensitive matters, are exposed to state secrets – sometimes even more than cabinet members. As a result it is considered more prestigious than other Knesset committees and there is competition between the various Knesset factions, and within the parties, for membership. The committee chairman also holds a key position.

After the last Knesset election, the chairmanship was given to MK Avigdor Lieberman, who had resigned from the cabinet while awaiting a decision in his fraud trial. Upon his acquittal last month, Lieberman quickly returned to his position as foreign minister and the committee was left without a chairman. Since then, there has been a personal and interparty struggle for the position.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is demanding the job for its MK, Ofer Shelah. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to give the post to Shelah and insists on the appointment of one of the MKs closest to him, Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud). Until the battle is decided, the committee remains paralyzed and problematic. Temporary solutions are being improvised to run the committee meetings.

There is no reason to rule out either candidate competing. Both have accumulated knowledge on the functioning of the defense and foreign affairs organizations of Israel. Hanegbi – who has previously served as chairman of the committee – has a more establishment background, as a member of the ruling party and former cabinet minister. He is also an avid partner – maybe too enthusiastic – to Netanyahu’s approach in favor of a military operation against Iran.

Shelah, who only recently moved from journalism to politics, may very well represent a more critical approach. This is a point in his favor. A yes man should not stand at the head of the committee that supervises the prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, Israel Defense Forces and intelligence community.

There is logic in the chairman of the committee being an MK who can present difficult questions in private. He is not necessarily required to be confrontational, but it is best if he and a few members of the subcommittees can serve as a supervisory body – one that serves as a counterweight. The claim coming from Netanyahu’s court is that Shelah is not “official” enough and is inappropriate. The chairman is the representative of the legislative branch, which is meant to restrain and balance the executive branch. As such, it is preferable that it makes use of question marks, not exclamation points.

Netanyahu chose to turn the appointment into a test of strength between him and Lapid. This is a legitimate political fight, but one that has been stretched out for too long and may well damage the entire system. Netanyahu and Lapid must reach a decision immediately and end this farce.