News Analysis: Netanyahu signals major changes in leadership style

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JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised Israel's political community this week by signaling that he would appoint a close political ally as justice minister– an unusual move in Israel.

Netanyahu's nod to Tzachi Hanegbi, now the health minister and one of the youngest Cabinet members, is the latest in a series of events that reflect the premier's American-style leadership.

Appointing political allies to key posts will not only shape the Cabinet, but may affect the composition of the judiciary, the military and the civil service.

The top Justice Ministry post fell vacant last week when Ya'acov Ne'eman resigned after the attorney general instructed police to investigate him for allegedly obstructing justice in a key case against Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra religious Shas Party.

Ne'eman, who is Orthodox, set off a political firestorm by accusing Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair and the senior echelons of the Justice Ministry of bias against the Orthodox community and of allowing political prejudices to affect them.

Hanegbi originally made his name as a young student firebrand at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the late 1970s. He had several brushes with the law at the time, and he has sustained an image of irreverence toward the establishment since then.

Although Hanegbi subsequently became a lawyer, he is a far cry from the weighty figures who have filled this central Cabinet position in the past.

He has no record as a parliamentary champion of civil liberties — a quality that distinguishes two of his Cabinet colleagues, Science Minister Ze'ev "Benny" Begin and Finance Minister Dan Meridor, who was a past minister of justice.

On Sunday, Netanyahu appointed Hanegbi chairman of the Cabinet Legislation Committee, a post almost always held by the minister of justice. He is expected to name Hanegbi to head the Justice Ministry this weekend.

By appointing Hanegbi, rather than the widely respected Meridor or Begin — and by supporting Ne'eman in his raucous feud with the state's legal establishment — Netanyahu is sending out a powerful signal.

The premier intends to promote an interpretation of law that is shared by the right-religious coalition he heads and that diverges sharply from the positions of the largely liberal Supreme Court and by most of Israel's legal establishment.

For example, the Netanyahu government would like to see a judiciary that is less interventionist in decisions made by the Israel Defense Force and thus more sympathetic to security rather than civil-rights concerns.

And his religious coalition partners would like to see a judiciary that leans toward protecting their interests.

To Americans, there would not be much surprise in the approach Netanyahu is taking. In Washington, D.C., new administrations expect to bring their political persuasions to bear on shaping the country's legal establishment — including the composition of the Supreme Court.

In Israel, however, constitutional norms have largely rested on British patterns. Israel's Supreme Court, the district courts, the attorney general and the district attorneys have been seen as purely professional appointees who were not to be influenced — and certainly not to be criticized — by politicians.

Netanyahu, however, Israel's first directly elected prime minister and the first prime minister who spent long and formative periods in the United States, sees things differently.

The far-reaching changes he is proposing to introduce extend from the government to the country's legal and judicial system, where Netanyahu hopes to make his own appointments to the courts and the state prosecutor's office.

Netanyahu's support for Ne'eman and his probable appointment of Hanegbi came the same week that the government announced its plan to appoint deputy directors general in all the government ministries.

Until now, the directors general were the only top officials regularly appointed to office by incoming administrations.

The move has provoked protests throughout the civil service. Long-serving officials say their chances of promotion are significantly reduced by the appointment, every four or eight years, of a new deputy director general.

The civil service commissioner, Professor Yitzhak Galnoor warned that the professionalism of the civil service would be eroded.

Not coincidentally, the Netanyahu government also sought this week to name its own appointee to serve as the civil service commissioner.

The High Court of Justice, which ruled that the position should not be filled by political appointees, prevented Galnoor from being summarily dismissed.

The widespread naming of political appointees — a holdover from Netanyahu's experiences in America — reflects his desire to control most aspects of the top echelons of government.

This desire has also spilled into the area of foreign affairs, where Netanyahu has made it clear that he wants to manage the negotiations with Israel's Arab neighbors.

He harbors a deep distrust of the Foreign Ministry staff, whom he believes will not implement the new approach to the peace process, and of his longtime political rival, Foreign Minister David Levy, whose aides have complained that Levy is about to resign for being left out of foreign-policy decisions.

Levy made a private visit to New York this week and there is much speculation regarding his future upon his return home.

Another incident signaled how foreign policy may be conducted under Netanyahu. Earlier this month, a high-ranking Likud official voiced mistrust of Israel's most venerated institution: the Israel Defense Force.

Uzi Landau, the chairman of the key Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, attacked the professionalism of the IDF's top echelons. Landau said the IDF's generals were "sold on" the previous Labor government's peace policies and could not be trusted to carry out the new government's policies.

He blamed the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successor, Shimon Peres, for involving the army brass in negotiations that led to the self-rule accords with the Palestinians.

Landau's attack provoked a loud media outcry, both from sources close to the senior IDF officers and from leading members of the previous administration.

Labor and members of the left-wing Meretz Party urged Netanyahu to dismiss Landau from his powerful post.

But Netanyahu — while duly voicing his own "complete confidence" in the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak, and in his senior staff — nevertheless reiterated his resolve to sharply reduce the army's role in future negotiations.

He was hinting that he did not entirely dissociate himself from all of Landau's accusations.

There have so far been no individual firings in the army — or in the legal establishment, or in the senior ranks of the civil service.

But an atmosphere of uncertainty and concern hangs like a gray cloud over Israel's military officers, government attorneys and civil service officials.

Many of them wait with trepidation for the cold gale of Americanization gusting through the central institutions of the state.