The return of Avigdor Lieberman to head the Foreign Ministry will undoubtedly exacerbate the disastrous absence of cabinet responsibility and failure of the government to speak with one voice. This will become especially sensitive now with Israel’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with the Obama Administration over Iran and the Palestinians.
I feel a sense of shame when observing the detrimental behavior of cabinet ministers who are totally uninhibited about publicly attacking and undermining the policies of their own government.
The principle of cabinet government is collective ministerial responsibility. In some governments, cabinets are decision making bodies; in others they are purely advisory. No matter what the extent of their function, cabinets serve to promote the policies accepted by majority rule.
Whether coalition partners or individual ministers, those who agree to join the cabinet are obliged to support the government or at the very least remain silent.
Should a minister feel so strongly against the policy adopted that he is impelled to agitate against its implementation, he must formally resign and operate from the ranks of the opposition. The lack of accountability by senior ministers who publicly condemn their own government policies and continue to retain office, effectively marginalizes the role of the opposition and confuses the electorate. It is the role of the opposition not ministers, to lead campaigns against government policies.
It is hard to visualize any other responsible administration in the world that would tolerate senior government officials who repeatedly contradict and castigate policies which had already been debated internally and adopted by majority vote. In the US, France, the UK or any other democratic nation, a minister or deputy minister publicly criticizing his government would immediately be removed from office.
That is the way Israeli cabinets operated under the early Labor governments and the government of Menahem Begin. It was only after the two-party system began eroding under Prime Ministers Netanyahu and Barak that cabinet responsibility collapsed and ministers began criticizing their government without being obliged to resign.
In recent years, the situation has degenerated dramatically and utter chaos has ensued. Other than a handful of loyal members, ministers, whether from the right or the left, display contempt for the concept of cabinet responsibility and seem primarily concerned with pursuing their own personal agendas.
When Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered one of the most effective speeches presenting the case for Israel at the United Nations two years ago, Foreign Minister and head of Israel Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman issued public statements contradicting him. During a recent visit to Japan, Finance Minister and head of Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid, announced that he disagreed with his Prime Minister’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Minister of Justice and head of Hatnuah, Tzipi Livni, never hesitates to contradict government policy in relation to the Palestinians.
Most recently, despite his participation in the actual cabinet decision to release the convicted terrorists with blood on their hands, Naftali Bennet, Minister for Economy and Commerce and head of Bayit Yehudi, orchestrated a campaign of incitement against his government prior to the release of the second batch. Uri Ariel, Minister for Housing and Construction also from Bayit Yehudi, personally participated in a demonstration at the prison against the release.
Some ministers speak out against the government on a regular basis. Deputy Foreign Minister Zev Belkin and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon – both members of the ruling Likud party – regularly publicly condemn the Prime Minister’s two-state policy. Danon even contributed an op-ed in the New York Times to this effect.
What makes this environment even more bewildering is that our President Shimon Peres, whose role is essentially ceremonial and is expected to boost unity within the nation, is himself one of the worst offenders and unhesitatingly promotes his personal views, frequently contradicting fundamental central foreign policies.
Obviously the validity of criticisms is not the point. Many Israelis, myself included, frequently harbor critical views not dissimilar to those expressed by ministers against the government. But once adopted as government policy, ministers cannot pick and choose the policies they will support.
Those who justify the system suggest, pathetically, that such behavior reflects the exuberant freedom of expression which infuses Israeli politics. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cabinet disarray is causing us immense harm on the world stage, presenting our leaders as an irresponsible and squabbling rabble, creating confusion amongst our friends and allies and playing into the hands of our enemies. We are being perceived as a banana republic, and create our own diplomatic crisis each time a minister contradicts official policy.
In the coming months, we will be entering into an extraordinarily complex and difficult diplomatic era. The United States has distanced itself from the Middle East but continues to cling to the flawed concept that the Israeli -Palestinian conflict is the central factor responsible for tension and turbulence in the region. The Obama Administration seems determined to pressure us into making additional concessions to appease the Palestinians, irrespective of the consequences to our long term security. It will require a delicate diplomatic tightrope balancing act to resist such pressures whilst retaining the vital support of Congress and the American public.
There is a need to recognize that in the course of balancing these countervailing pressures confronting us and in order to protect our long-term security interests, our government will, from time to time, invariably be obliged to make a number of unpopular decisions that may antagonize many Israelis. That is the leadership role which a responsible government is obliged to take.
In such an environment, more than ever, it is imperative that a united government speaks on behalf of the majority of the nation.
Prime Minister Netanyahu must enforce government discipline. He must insist that any minister who feels morally obligated to publicly oppose government policies must first resign and only then is free to campaign against the policy – from the ranks of the opposition. For their part, ministers must assume a sense of responsibility, set aside their short-term interests to regain public trust and make international diplomacy possible. Israel cannot function as a respectable, democratic nation state unless its leaders subordinate their domestic ambitions to the national interest.
The writer may be contacted at [email protected]