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To the Victor, the Spoils

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Source: Gush Shalom



IN THE days following the recent Israeli elections, Ya'ir Lapid, the major winner, let it be known that he wanted to be the next Foreign Minister.

No wonder. It's the hell of a job. You can't lose, because the Foreign Minister is responsible for nothing. Serious foreign fiascos are always laid at the door of the Prime Minister, who determines foreign policy anyway. The Foreign Minister travels around the world, stays in luxury hotels with gourmet cuisine, has his picture taken in the company of royalty and presidents, appears almost daily on TV. Sheer paradise.

For someone who declares publicly that he wants to become Prime Minister soon, perhaps in a year and a half, this post is very advantageous. People see you among the world's great. You look "prime ministerial."

Moreover, no experience is needed. For Lapid, who entered politics less than a year ago, this is ideal. He has all a Foreign Minister needs: good looks and a photogenic quality. After all, he made his career on TV.

So why did he not become Foreign Minister? Why has he let himself be pushed into the Finance Ministry -- a far more strenuous job, which can make or break a politician?

Simply because the Foreign Ministry has a big sign on its door: Occupied.

THE LAST Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was, probably, the least suitable person for the job in the whole country. He is no Apollo. He has an air of brutality, shifty eyes and spare vocabulary. He is unpopular everywhere in the world except Russia and its satellites. He has been avoided throughout by most of his international colleagues. Many of them consider him an outright fascist.

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But Netanyahu is afraid of Lieberman. Without Lieberman's parliamentary storm troopers, Likud has only 20 seats -- just one more than Lapid. And within the joint party, Lieberman may well replace Netanyahu in the not too distant future.

Lieberman has been forced out of the Foreign Office by the law that forbids an indicted person to serve in the government. For many years now, a dark judicial cloud has been hanging over his head. Investigations followed suspicions of huge bribes. In the end, the Attorney General decided to content himself with an indictment for fraud and breach of trust: a minor diplomat turned over to Lieberman a secret police dossier concerning his investigation and was awarded an ambassadorship.

Netanyahu's fear of Lieberman induced him to promise that the Foreign Minister's post would remain empty until the final judgment in Lieberman's case. If acquitted, his lofty position will be waiting for him.

This may be a unique arrangement. After barring Lapid's ambition to succeed him, Lieberman declared this week triumphantly: "Everyone knows that the Foreign Office belongs to the Israel Beitenu party!"

THAT IS an interesting statement. It may be worthwhile pondering its implications.

How can any government office "belong" to a party?

In feudal times, the King awarded his nobles hereditary fiefs. Each nobleman was a minor king in his domain, in theory owing allegiance to the sovereign but in practice often almost independent. Are modern ministries such fiefs "belonging" to the party chiefs?

This is a question of principle. Ministers are supposed to serve the country and its citizens. In theory, the best man or woman suited for the job should be appointed. Party affiliation, of course, does play a role. The Prime Minister must construct a working coalition. But the uppermost consideration, even in a multi-party democratic republic, should be the suitability of the candidate for the particular office.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Though no elected Prime Minister should go to the length of Ehud Barak, who displayed an almost sadistic delight in placing each of his colleagues in the ministry he was most unsuitable for. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a gentle history professor, was put into the Ministry of Police (a.k.a. Interior Security), where he was responsible for an incident in which several Arab citizens were shot. Yossi Beilin, a genius bubbling with original political ideas, was sent to the Ministry of Justice. And so on.

I remember meeting several of the new ministers at a diplomatic reception soon after. They were all deeply embittered and their comments were of course unprintable.

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Gush

Uri Avnery is a longtime Israeli peace activist. Since 1948 has advocated the setting up of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In 1974, Uri Avnery was the first Israeli to establish contact with PLO leadership. In 1982 he was the first Israeli ever to meet Yassir Arafat, after crossing the lines in besieged Beirut. He served three terms in the Israeli (more...)
 

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