Netanyahu’s Divided Cabinet

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Nathaniel Kern, Matthew M. Reed

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu insists that Washington must set clear “red lines” if it wants to stop Iran from advancing its controversial nuclear program. In recent weeks, he has repeatedly asserted that “diplomacy and sanctions have not worked,” and that the U.S. must make the threat of military action explicit if it wants to deter Iran. On September 10, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected this argument, telling Bloomberg News that the U.S. will not set deadlines. “We’re convinced that we have more time to focus on these sanctions, to do everything we can to bring Iran to a good faith negotiation,” she said.

The apparent gap between the American and Israeli positions has made Netanyahu vulnerable to criticism at home. During a special summer session of the Knesset on September 12, opposition leader Shaul Mofaz challenged Netanyahu over his sharp disagreements with the Obama administration. “Who are you trying to replace? The Administration in Washington or the one in Tehran?” the former IDF Chief of Staff and ex-Defense Minister asked. “The world will not turn its back on Israel. The world is not sick of Israel. The world is sick of Netanyahu and does not believe him.” Mofaz, 63, served briefly in Netanyahu’s cabinet as part of a national unity government, but quit in July, warning against a premature strike on Iran.

While Netanyahu has promised that Israel will attack Iran if the world fails to act, recent reports suggest his cabinet remains divided for now.

Understanding Israel’s Decision-Making Process

As Herb Keinon lucidly pointed out in recent articles for the Jerusalem Post, much of the reporting on Israel’s decision-making process has been misleading. “There has been a great deal of misinformation over the past few months about the question of who in this country will decide whether to attack Iran,” Keinon wrote on September 6. “A few weeks ago there was an impression created in the media that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak would make the decision alone.” This is not the case.

Under Israeli law, Israel’s 14-member Security Cabinet has the primary responsibility for making any decision to attack Iran (or any other country), although precedence would suggest that the entire 29-member Cabinet should approve any decision. Netanyahu assembled the Security Cabinet for a briefing on Iran on September 5 but then cancelled a follow-up session the next day after complaining of leaks to the press.

Netanyahu’s Inner Cabinet

Throughout this summer, Netanyahu has used his informal “inner cabinet” as a sounding board for the Iran decision. But by most authoritative accounts, this inner cabinet was deadlocked 4 to 4. Netanyahu’s appointment of former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter as Minister of Home Defense was seen by some as an attempt to break the deadlock by adding a ninth member to the inner cabinet. But Dichter hasn’t tipped the balance yet. And he is not a member of the more important and expansive 14-member Security Cabinet.

Earlier this month, Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared to have shifted from being a supporter of Netanyahu on a decision to strike Iran to being a skeptic. If so, that would leave Netanyahu with only two reliable supporters in the inner Cabinet: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.

The four members of the inner cabinet who have been widely identified as opposed to a strike at this time are: Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Minister without portfolio Benny Begin, Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor, and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is head of the Shas political party.

Courting Rabbi Yosef

In mid-August, Netanyahu sent his national security advisor, Yaakov Amidror, to meet with the spiritual leader of Shas, the 92-year old former chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef. Shas follows Yosef’s advice but the influential leader mentioned Iran only briefly in his weekly Torah lesson, delivered one day after Amidror briefed Yosef and Yishai.

“A second Haman, also from Persia, intends to do evil to us,” the rabbi said, referring to an ancient Persian enemy of the Jewish people. “We need to stand in prayer with all our hearts before God. We are in danger. All of us are in danger. We have no one to rely on apart from our Father in heaven.” There has been no reporting that Yosef has ordered Shas to change its position on an Iranian strike.

No Vote in Security Cabinet

There have been limited discussions in the Israeli press as to how a vote would turn out in the Security Cabinet if Netanyahu asked for one today. The positions of some cabinet members are unknown, or at least fluid, according to publicly available reports published in the past 30 days. It is a fair assumption that if Netanyahu had the necessary votes—at least more than a bare majority—he would have called for a vote rather than cancel the second meeting of the Security Cabinet earlier this month. Alternately, Netanyahu could have assembled the Security Cabinet in secret.

Without any public notice, Prime Minister Menachem Begin obtained the approval of his Security Cabinet in October 1980 for an attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor after much debate. But the attack was not carried out until June 1981. Begin obtained the approval of the full cabinet after the planes had already taken off, giving himself time to abort the mission if the vote failed.

Inner Cabinet Positions (Parties in Parentheses)

Prime Minister of Israel Benyamin Netanyahu (Likud): Attack Iran
Minister of Finance Yuval Steinitz (Likud): Attack Iran
Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Leiberman (Yisrael Beiteinu): Attack Iran

Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud): Against Strike
Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor (Likud): Against Strike
Minister without portfolio Benny Begin (Likud): Against Strike
Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas): Against Strike

Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Independence): Uncertain
Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter (No affiliation, Kadima until 2012): Unknown

(Note: Avi Dichter is a member of the inner cabinet but not the Security Cabinet)

Positions of Remaining Security Cabinet Members

Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman (No affiliation): Favorable
National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beiteinu): Favorable

Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud): Against Strike
Minister of Housing Ariel Atias (Shas): Against Strike

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich (Yisrael Beiteinu): Unknown
Minister of Education Gideon Sa’ar (Likud): Unknown


Foreign Reports is a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that writes and distributes timely intelligence reports on political developments in the Middle East relevant to oil markets. Oil companies, governments, and financial institutions rely on Foreign Reports for their insight and analysis on key issues affecting the world generally and the Middle East specifically. The firm was founded in 1956 and the current President is Nathaniel Kern.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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