Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will ask the cabinet on Sunday to approve his appointment of the head of a local Likud branch as Israel’s new ambassador to Georgia.
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The Civil Service Commission determined that Shabtai Tzur has a direct political connection to Netanyahu. Nevertheless, it approved the request because Tzur had already served as ambassador to Georgia once before – however, at that time as well, he was a political appointee.
In March 2014 Haaretz reported that Tzur, who heads the Likud branch in Ashkelon and is Ashkelon’s deputy mayor, submitted a request to that city’s street name committee asking that the name of the street on which he lives be changed to his name. Although according to the criteria streets are not to be named after living persons, the committee approved the change. However, a few days later, following public criticism of the move, Mayor Itamar Shimoni reversed the decision.
Netanyahu is presenting the request for cabinet approval of the appointment in his capacity as foreign minister. In that capacity he has the authority to appoint 11 individuals who are not professional diplomats to ambassadorial or consular postings. The Civil Service Commission is required to scrutinize the political association between the candidate and the foreign minister.
A document attached to the proposal, which also appears on the Foreign Ministry website, states that on July 21 a meeting was held about Tzur’s appointment in the presence of Civil Service Commissioner Moshe Dayan. It was determined at that meeting that the appointment is problematic and did not conform to the attorney general’s directives prohibiting appointments based on political association, given Tzur’s Likud roles in Ashkelon as head of the Ashkelon branch of Likud, a member of the city council for Likud and a member of the Likud Central Committee.
According to the proposal before the cabinet, Tzur would be appointed exceptionally to a three year term with an option for a fourth year on the recommendation of the foreign minister, Netanyahu.
Netanyahu and Tzur have known each other for more than 20 years, having met in the context of Tzur’s political work for Likud. During Netanyahu’s last term as prime minister he appointed Tzur to a newly created position, the prime minister’s adviser on Georgia and the Caucasus. Further evidence to Netanyahu's ties to Tzur is the unusual letter the prime minister sent the Civil Service Commission praising Tzur’s “special skills that make him worthy of the position [of ambassador].” Among those skills, Netanyahu cited the fact that Tzur was born in Georgia and speaks the language, as well as the fact that he had “significant knowledge” of the country where he is to serve and “diplomatic experience” having served as ambassador to Tbilisi from 2003 to 2004.
At that time Tzur was appointed ambassador after he lost the election for mayor of Ashkelon. According to a report on the news site Ynet, during the mayoral campaign it was indicated to Tzur that if he lost the election, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intended to make him Israel’s ambassador to Georgia.
Contrary to Civil Service rules, when Tzur became ambassador to Georgia the first time he did not resign his position on the Ashkelon City Council or the Ashkelon Likud branch and he served as ambassador for a few months without having been appointed a state employee.
This issue was indirectly addressed in an opinion presented to the cabinet earlier in July on Tzur’s appointment by the Foreign Ministry legal counsel Tami Kaplan-Turjeman. The opinion stated that Tzur had signed a pledge that he would resign from all municipal and political posts immediately after his appointment was approved, stating that he had already resigned from the Likud Central Committee. On that basis, Kaplan-Turjeman determined that there was no impediment to his appointment.