Buried Treasury: Lapid Likely to Pass on Glamour of Foreign Ministry

Lapid’s insistence on the Foreign Ministry was the major stumbling block to forming a government. While he would doubtless make a good foreign minister, it now seems he’ll accept the drudgery of the Finance Ministry instead.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In the last two decades of the previous century there was a social leader named David Levy. He always spoke up for the weak and poor and carried that social banner proudly through every election campaign. Woe betide anyone who presumed to share the burden with him.

But a moment after the polling stations closed, social leader Levy would consider nothing but the Foreign Ministry. Anyone who dared suggest that he opt for the treasury or, heaven forbid, some socioeconomic portfolio, would regret their temerity. Levy would ignite with rage, spitting fire as if some terrible insult had been hurled at him.

He generated frequent coalition crises, made threats, resigned and cloistered himself in his Beit She’an home, always over his status as foreign minister. As though it were his birthright.

Asked what the allure of the Foreign Ministry was, Levy would say his voters the poor, needy and underprivileged wanted to see him speak for Israel in the UN and world capitals. “When I’m foreign minister they feel pride,” he would say without an iota of modesty. “I’m giving them back their dignity, making them hold their heads high,” he’d say.

Yair Lapid’s voters don’t have a problem with dignity. They are not the downtrodden masses. Their heads are already held high. But they’re having difficulty buying an apartment and financing a good education. They are mostly middle-class people who voted for Yesh Atid so Lapid could grapple with the daily hardships of housing, education, health and the issue of military service. They wanted him to reduce the government’s size and kick the ultra-Orthodox to hell.

The day after the election Lapid’s voters were asked in one of his Ramat Aviv strongholds what ministry they’d like to see him in. They said education, interior, housing and of course treasury. Nobody mentioned the Foreign Ministry.

So far Lapid’s insistence on the Foreign Ministry has been the stumbling block to forming a government. Lapid has become greedy. A government with no ultra-Orthodox parties, 23-24 ministers and an army draft plan very similar to his own no longer satisfies him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caved in under Lapid’s crushing alliance with Naftali Bennett and agreed to most of his demands in domestic, social and economic affairs. He even offered Lapid the job of finance minister, a post senior ministers in any party would kill for.

But Lapid is fleeing the Finance Ministry and all the power it affords. He is evading hard, sometimes monotonous work and daily struggles with coalition partners. He is afraid of failure. In brief, he is running from leadership. He wants the good life, free of real responsibility, a life that’s all image.

As the leader of a party of 19 Knesset members, he doubtlessly deserves the Foreign Ministry. There is also no question that with his attractive appearance, winning smile, good English and moderate positions he could be a very good foreign minister. He would convey a saner message to the international community than the previous foreign minister did. But Netanyahu is bound to his commitment to Avigdor Lieberman, who is not only Netanyahu’s partner but the leader of an 11-MK faction.

Unless Lieberman renounces the portfolio voluntarily, Netanyahu will have no coalition. Lapid will have to explain to his voters why he dragged the state to new elections just because he felt like running the Foreign Ministry. Even David Levy wouldn’t dare do that.

Unpredictable changes

On Wednesday the first cracks appeared in the Lapid-Bennett alliance. Lapid’s insistence on the foreign affairs portfolio got on Bennett’s people’s nerves. They started speaking ill of big brother, doubting his judgment. They said the alliance wouldn’t last forever and Habayit Hayehudi should consider joining Netanyahu’s government without Lapid, in exchange for the finance portfolio for little brother.

Indeed, the Finance Ministry was laid out as bait on Bennett’s threshold this week. The unbearable ease with which Netanyahu gave up his most strategic portfolio to Bennett, whom he didn’t even want to see in his cabinet, took many by surprise. For Netanyahu, the treasury is more important than defense or foreign affairs.

The last time a finance minister came from outside the ruling party was in the mid-'80s, during the Likud-Labor national unity government.

That wasn’t the only political vicissitude this week. Netanyahu’s willingness to name Tzipi Livni as justice minister astounded his party. Keeping the justice portfolio in Likud’s hands has always been of paramount importance to Netanyahu.

At the start of his first term, in 1996, Netanyahu appointed his confidant and family attorney Yaakov Neeman as justice minister. When Neeman had to leave and stand trial (in which he was acquitted), he was replaced by Bibi’s close friend Tzachi Hanegbi.

A few months ago Netanyahu tapped Gilad Erdan for justice minister, with Lieberman’s agreement. He felt, as always, that the portfolio must stay in the hands of someone close and loyal to the prime minister.

But about three weeks ago, Israel woke to find Livni, of all people, as the next justice minister. The unexpected appointment was not only surprising, it wasn’t really necessary. Livni would have taken any ministry as long as she could run the talks with the Palestinians.

A Facebook answer

Army Radio listeners were surprised on Tuesday morning to hear Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich saying the former minister allegedly involved in a vote-buying scheme in Labor’s primary was Amir Peretz.

Yacimovich showed again that she doesn’t forget or forgive and when it comes to settling scores she takes no prisoners.

But the real story in Labor now is the massive pressure exerted on Yacimovich to join Netanyahu’s government and save the ultra-Orthodox from opposition exile and Netanyahu from forced partnership with Lapid and Bennett.

Yacimovich has refused a request from Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to meet with him. Also this week, a prominent Ashkenazi rabbi sent an envoy to New York to ask people associated with Labor at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to persuade Yacimovich to join the government.

Livni also tried to persuade her friend to join. Livni knows Netanyahu’s agreement with her is at risk and that the more weight Habayit Hayehudi has in the government, the less leeway she’ll have to negotiate with the Palestinians.

In recent days functionaries sent by Haredi parties have even tried to persuade Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On to form a parliamentary bloc of 21 Knesset seats with Labor and join the coalition with Livni and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Netanyahu has recently complained that he doesn’t know what Yacimovich wants. “We met a few times,” he said. “I offered to meet many of her concerns. She didn’t respond. Later I received her answer on Facebook. To this moment I don’t know what she wants.”

“All he wants is to create an opening toward negotiations and talk numbers,” Yacimovich countered. “For me to suggest to Labor’s convention to enter the government, he must say something far-reaching. He didn’t. That’s why I detailed our difference of opinions on Facebook.”

Netanyahu is offering up big ministries to non-Likud faces.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yair Lapid, center, leader of Yesh Atid party, at opening session of Israel's newly elected parliament in Jerusalem, Feb. 5, 2013.Credit: AP