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Behind the Headlines Begin’s Style of Government

The style of Menachem Begin’s government is gradually crystallizing. It differs markedly from its predecessor with different systems of administering the State-though not necessarily better ones.

Menachem Begin’s personal power as Premier rests heavily on the reliably consistent obedience of his Cabinet ministers. The key ministries, Defense and Foreign Affairs, are headed by Ezer Weizman and Moshe Dayan, respectively, who both owe their high positions directly to the Premier. Neither Dayan nor Weizman is a veteran Herut leader. Weizman is a relative newcomer in Herut (the major wing of the Likud bloc) and Dayan has not even joined Herut yet.

The political careers of these two men depend entirely on Begin’s favor, and they, acutely aware of this situation, adapt themselves to his policy and tactics. Much the same is true of Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon who joined Herut only two months ago.

All the other Likud ministers, except Finance Minister Simcha Ehrlich, are weaker personalities who have no pretension to a role of national leadership and prefer to concentrate their efforts and talents on administering their ministries.

The dependence of the prominent ministers on Begin, the unpretentious mentality of the rest of the Cabinet members, the inexperience of most of the ministers (only three of them served in the 1967-70 national unity government) and the dominant personality of Begin enable the Premier to rule with a measure of high-handed autocracy.

EXPRESSION OF THE NEW STYLE

The new style expresses itself in various forms in the course of Cabinet work: The Cabinet functions behind a heavy curtain of secrecy. Begin urges his ministers to refrain from talking to the press about Cabinet meetings and they accede religiously to his demand. Begin has instructed Cabinet Secretary Arye Naor to cease the previous practice of informing the public in advance what issues are included in the Cabinet agenda. Similarly, Sharon convenes his Ministerial Settlement Committee without telling even the members what issues are to be discussed at the meeting.

After the weekly Cabinet meetings, Naor gives a terse, almost laconic briefing to the press and generally refuses to reply to questions designed to elicit a little detailed information about the ministers’ discussions. As a result, the reports on the Cabinet’s activities are more or less standard in all the media and consequently the public gets a one-dimensional image of its government.

Almost all Cabinet resolutions are approved unanimously (the sole exception was the decision to hold military displays in a parade marking the State’s 30th anniversary). The usual procedure is that Begin submits to the Cabinet a draft decision and the ministers accept it without objection.

The actual discussions at the Cabinet meetings are short and not profound. Most of the ministers prefer to concern themselves with the ministries they head and refrain from dealing with wider national topics. When issues of defense and foreign policy are introduced at the Cabinet, most of the ministers do not take an active part in the discussion. The only exception is Dayan who has independent views which he sometimes tries, gently, to propound to the Premier and the other more orthodox Cabinet members. Sometimes Begin seems to show a readiness to be influenced by his Foreign Minister.

He has publicly expressed his full satisfaction with Dayan’s role in the Foreign Ministry and at Cabinet meetings. But in a recent interview in the Long Island newspaper, Newsday, Begin’s close aide, Shmuel Katz, stated that Dayan did not reflect Begin’s thinking.

SURROUNDED BY DEVOTEES

Begin is surrounded by his devotees. Most of his close aides are veteran party and personal supporters; so are the Cabinet Secretary and the Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office. All these people admire Begin and are deeply grateful to him for their appointments.

The overall consequence of these patterns of government could be dangerous. The Cabinet functions without seriously examining alternatives. The homogeneous views that unite the parties comprising the coalition, the silent obedience of most of the ministers to Begin’s dominant personality, the enthusiastic devotees that surround him and the interest of top ministers and aides in seeing eye-to-eye with him create the unique (for Israel) situation of a Cabinet functioning almost without differences of opinion. This situation has obvious advantages but is not necessarily ideal or entirely healthy.

It is doubtful, however, whether this style of administration can hold sway indefinitely. Human foibles and passions-such as ambition, envy and personal competition-may shake even the homogeneity of Begin’s Cabinet.

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