Israel's New, Less Experienced Security Cabinet Seems More Hawkish on Iran

Some of the new additions to the security cabinet, including ministers Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett and Gilad Erdan, lack meaningful experience in the defense arena.

The eight members of the next security cabinet are known, but while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prefers to keep the decision-making body small, he may have to add two Likud ministers to compensate them for their reduced status in the broader cabinet.

Six members of the security cabinet are determined by law: Netanyahu; Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon; Finance Minister Yair Lapid; Justice Minister Tzipi Livni; Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch; and the foreign minister. ‏(As with the portfolio, membership in the security cabinet is being reserved for Avigdor Lieberman until his breach-of-trust trial ends.‏)

These six will be joined by Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Naftali Bennett as the head of the Habayit Hayehudi faction, and Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan.

The outgoing government had two main forums for discussing security issues. The first was the so-called forum of seven ‏(which grew to eight and nine‏). This forum held in-depth strategic discussions and dealt seriously with key questions like the Iranian nuclear program and relations with the United States. Despite the lack of media leaks, the forum had no legal standing. Netanyahu knew that if he ever wanted to attack Iran, he had to convene the security cabinet and possibly even the full cabinet.

It seems that this time Netanyahu prefers to unite the two forums and have the security cabinet and the forum of eight be the same body. Unclear is whether the prime minister feels forced to compensate Yuval Steinitz and Silvan Shalom for their demotions from key cabinet positions.

The most obvious characteristic of this new security cabinet is that several members lack any meaningful security experience. People like Ehud Barak, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, who together had decades of dealing with sensitive security issues, are out of the picture. Lapid, Bennett and Erdan come without any comparable experience, and although Aharonovitch was a member last time, his expertise is largely in police issues.

It’s also unclear how this security cabinet would decide on the most pressing security question − an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But at first glance it seems the new security cabinet is more hawkish than the last one.

The last forum of seven held many fierce debates on Iran. It seems Ya’alon, Meridor and Begin mounted a united front against an Israeli attack that wasn’t coordinated with the United States, and managed to block the opposing trend, which was led by Netanyahu and Barak, usually with Lieberman’s support.

Even when Steinitz and Avi Dichter were added to the hawkish column, the moderates, although a minority, carried the day because they were backed by the heads of the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad, and to some degree the Shin Bet security service.

Regarding Iran, Lapid and Livni will probably inherit the roles of Begin and Meridor, although Lapid has no security background at all. Facing them will be Netanyahu and probably later Lieberman, and we can assume that if necessary they’ll bring in party colleagues Erdan and Aharonovitch. Bennett has said he won’t express an opinion on Iran until he sees all the information available.

Regarding negotiations with the Palestinians, the fault line is clearer: In principle both Ya’alon and Bennett are in the hawkish column, although both are likely to support confidence-building gestures toward the Palestinian Authority as long as they don’t go too far. Lapid and Livni will be left alone as relative doves.

Meanwhile, politicians who support the settlement enterprise will hold key positions in the cabinet and Knesset − such as housing minister, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee and deputy defense minister. So the Yesha Council of settlers might have far more influence on budget allocations than in the past.

But though the new security cabinet is clearly less experienced and probably more hawkish, a lot depends on the moral and political weight of each member. Both Meridor and Begin had almost no political power in the last government, but they had enough moral weight to exert influence.

Lapid, despite his lack of diplomatic and security experience, will have to carve out a similar position if he wants to leave his mark on strategic matters. Otherwise, he’ll quickly find Netanyahu keeping him out of any decision that has nothing to do with the economy or social issues.

Emil Salman