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A Loyal Ally to Netanyahu Moves to Center Stage as Iranian Talks Heat Up

Yuval Steinitz, a philosopher-turned-politician and former peace activist, is Netanyahu’s point person on Iran

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U.S. State of Secretary John Kerry stands with (from left) Israeli Defense Minister Boogie Yaalon, Minister of International Relations Yuval Steinitz, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, at Netanyahu’s office on May 23, 2013, in Jerusalem. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
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Three years ago, the Israeli politician Yuval Steinitz was a man on the rise. A longtime Likud ally of Benjamin Netanyahu’s, he became finance minister after the 2009 elections and presided over the Israeli economy’s quick rebound from the global financial crisis. Before long, Netanyahu had turned his inner security septet into an octet to make room for him. In his early fifties, and with an ironclad alliance with the prime minister, Steinitz seemed a good bet to climb higher: One Jerusalem Post article even pegged him as one of seven “would-be successors for Netanyahu.”

But Steinitz’s luck ran out last year. After an unexpected economic slowdown, Israel’s budget deficit ballooned, and Steinitz was tasked with drafting an unpopular austerity budget. His approval rating sank to the teens, and in Likud primaries a few months later, he finished 15th among his fellow lawmakers. Following January’s general elections, in which the strong finish of Yair Lapid and his new Yesh Atid party forced Likud into a tense governing partnership, Steinitz lost both the finance ministry and his place in the security Cabinet. Adding insult to injury, Lapid, who replaced him, began blaming him for the nation’s economic woes.

In July, Netanyahu invited Steinitz—now minister of strategic affairs and intelligence—to a security-Cabinet meeting to weigh in on proposed cuts to Israel’s defense budget. But when the meeting turned from the cuts to the moribund peace process, Lapid noted that Steinitz wasn’t a formal member of the security Cabinet and asked that he leave the room, pressing the issue until the prime minister relented. “Yuval,” Netanyahu said, “please leave and in an hour I’ll call you back for the second meeting.” Steinitz, according to Channel 2’s account of the incident, stormed out. “What are they doing to me?” he muttered. “How can they treat me like this?”

In recent months, though, Steinitz, a former philosophy professor who specialized in metaphysics, has made a quiet comeback. With the Iranian nuclear issue again dominating the international agenda, Steinitz has emerged behind the scenes—and increasingly in public—as the government’s point person on the subject. Last month, he made his third American trip this year, meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and members of Congress in Washington to lobby against easing sanctions. He has also become a regular interlocutor for visiting European foreign ministers. Last week, he appeared on the BBC’s HARDtalk to share Israel’s reservations about the nuclear talks, just weeks after delivering a PowerPoint presentation on the issue to a roomful of skeptical international journalists at the King David Hotel.

Now advisers close to Netanyahu say he’s the leading candidate to replace Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister if a Jerusalem court finds Lieberman guilty of political corruption — a ruling expected on Wednesday. Either way, Steinitz is back in the room.

***

Steinitz lives in a modest stone house on an unassuming street in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion—remarkable only for the shed outside that houses several security cameras and a round-the-clock guard. Steinitz, of course, spends more time out of his house than in it. On normal days, he makes do with four to five hours of sleep, occasionally sneaking in power naps between meetings. But when he opened the door to his house on Friday morning to welcome me, he seemed well-rested, wearing a light-blue polo, khakis, and a pair of Nikes with black socks. It was the first time I’d seen him not in a suit.

As we sat at a small kitchen table, Steinitz told me apologetically that the interview would have to be a little shorter than planned because he had a one-on-one meeting with the prime minister afterward. The two, of course, had much to discuss: Iran and six world powers are set to meet this week in Geneva to discuss the contours of a possible deal. It had become Steinitz’s job to pour cold water on growing international optimism. “President Obama and Secretary Kerry said clearly that the Iranians are coming to the table with some willingness to compromise only because of the sanctions, so everyone should accept this simple equation: The greater the pressure, the greater the chances,” he told me. “And now I’m speaking as a former philosopher: If you accept the formula ‘the greater the pressure, the greater the chances,’ it also follows logically ‘the lesser the pressure, the lesser the chances,’ so don’t ease the pressure on Iran before you achieve your final satisfactory agreement.”

From Ehud Olmert to Tzipi Livni to the former Shin Bet chiefs who starred in the documentary The Gatekeepers, the story of the hawk-turned-dove has by now become something of a cliché in Israel. Steinitz, a former peace activist, is a rare counter-example. He was born and raised on a moshav near Tel Aviv. His parents were politically moderate, voting for DASH and other centrist parties. But their son found his home squarely on the left. As a philosophy student at Hebrew University in the early 1980s, he became active with Peace Now. He describes himself as having grown “disturbed” by Ariel Sharon’s prosecution of the First Lebanon War in 1982. His left leg was injured in a battle with the Syrian Army near Beirut, and at a 1983 antiwar rally in Jerusalem, Steinitz was injured in the same leg when a right-wing extremist threw a hand grenade into the crowd, killing another activist.

At a time when contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization were still banned, Steinitz advocated dialogue with Yasser Arafat. He voted for Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and then cheered the Oslo Accords a year later. But over the next two years, as Arafat began violating commitments and as suicide bombings became a new feature of Israeli life, Steinitz says he had a change of heart. “One thing philosophy educates you to do is to think in a very rational and logical way and to ask questions and to doubt your basic thesis, so one or two years after the Oslo process started, I had to re-ask myself whether I’m right or wrong, whether we’re going to get genuine peace, or instead of peace, we are going to get only a piece of paper,” he told me. “As a serious person, although it was very difficult to admit a mistake, to admit that you were at least partially wrong, but as a philosopher, I couldn’t help it. I had to ask myself if I was right or wrong. And then I realized that our enthusiasm about peace, ‘the new Middle East,’ that it’s based on illusion.”

When Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Steinitz, by then a prominent Haifa University lecturer, took to the airwaves to defend then-opposition leader Netanyahu from charges that he bore responsibility for the toxic political environment that produced the assassin. Netanyahu was apparently grateful: One day, Steinitz received a call from one of the politician’s aides requesting a meeting. The two met in Tel Aviv, and the historian’s son hit it off with the philosopher. “We were sitting three hours together,” Steinitz recalled. “We spoke a little about politics, about history, philosophy. I was impressed by his intellectual capacity.” Steinitz endorsed Netanyahu in the 1996 election and continued meeting with him periodically.

In 1999, Netanyahu lost his re-election bid, to Ehud Barak, but his friend Steinitz, by then a best-selling author of books on philosophy, won his first Knesset bid. The career transition proved tricky. “My first impression was that it was difficult for him to come from the world of academia and philosophy to the political life of the Knesset,” said Yuli Edelstein, the Knesset speaker and a longtime Likud colleague. He recalled a session where members were allowed to give a one-minute response, and Steinitz got up to speak. “It was far more than one minute, and the deputy speaker, who was running the session, said once, twice, ‘It’s already more than a minute,’ ” Edelstein told me. “And Steinitz said, ‘Well, I don’t understand. At the university, I didn’t have enough time when I had a lecture of 45 minutes and now I have to say everything in a minute? It’s too difficult!”

As chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Steinitz became renowned for his long-windedness. “In Hebrew, it’s called chofer, digging, when you speak a lot, and many people think it about Steinitz,” Channel 2 political reporter Amit Segal told me. Others are even sharper in their criticism. “He was a corporal in the infantry, and he came to be the chairman of the committee trying to make himself a general, speaking on things that he has no idea about,” said a top security figure who often testified before Steinitz. “He doesn’t listen to anybody else. He knows everything all the time.”

For his first decade in the Knesset, Steinitz—who was passed over for ministerial roles—struggled for relevance. “In the time of Sharon, he had no influence at all,” said the security figure. That remained the case through the years of Ehud Olmert’s time in the prime minister’s office but finally changed when Netanyahu returned to office in 2009. Now Steinitz has the favor of the only man who matters today. “Netanyahu likes him a lot,” said Segal, the political reporter. “He might be the sole real friend Netanyahu has in the Likud.”

***

Despite the flak he received for his handling of the austerity budget, people who have worked with him commend his work ethic and his intelligence. “He was not an economist, he was a philosopher,” said Ron Huldai, mayor of Tel Aviv—the epicenter of the infamous tent protests against the budget cuts. “But you can’t take from him that he is clever and wise and a hard worker,” Huldai added, noting the Steinitz was engaged and always willing to return phone calls.

He also has earned credit in some quarters for out-of-the-box thinking. Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi noted that Steinitz had long advocated that Israel prepare for a situation in which Egypt fell into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. “He did it for years,” Hanegbi told me, “and he was considered a Don Quixote because people including me felt that it’s a scenario that is unlikely to happen in the future, and we were wrong.”

As an envoy and potential foreign minister, Steinitz has advantages for Netanyahu. Unlike Lieberman, he speaks good English, and he knows how to be diplomatic. He is, by Likud standards, a moderate. (These days, he is the only Likud minister, other than Netanyahu, to publicly back a two-state solution.) He is also deeply loyal to the prime minister — by most estimations, to a fault. Perhaps most important from Netanyahu’s perspective, he is a political lieutenant, not a rival, who presents no political threat because of his loyalty and his relative political weakness.

When I asked Steinitz whether he believed he would become foreign minister if Lieberman is convicted, he was cagey. “I don’t want to comment,” he said, “because I really wish Avigdor Lieberman, who is also my friend—I’ve always had very good relations with him—that he will be exonerated, and I believe that it’s quite likely, so I don’t want to speculate.” But in private conversations, according to Ha’aretz, Steinitz has said that Netanyahu has already promised him the job. “In the Likud, there is no question at all the post will be mine.”

Indeed, Steinitz enjoys a closeness with the prime minister matched by few others: The two meet every two weeks to discuss strategic affairs, politics, and the latest books they’ve read. Among ministers, only Netanyahu’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni and perhaps Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon can claim as much face time with the boss.

But unlike Netanyahu, Steinitz has yet to master the art of the sound bite—a potential handicap in the age of YouTube and Twitter. “I was once preparing for an interview with him and I said I’ll only write down three questions because he’ll answer every other possible question in between,” one political reporter told me.

As the allotted hour for my interview neared its end last week, Steinitz’s aide, who had been seated like a mannequin throughout the interview, began shooting glances in my direction, but Steinitz was gracious. “We can have another five minutes,” he said. After five minutes elapsed, I thanked Steinitz for his time and started closing my laptop. But the minister wasn’t finished yet. He wanted to elaborate on a point about his recent diplomatic tours. “We mentioned our current visit to the United States a week ago. But in the last four months, I have already upgraded the dialogue between us and the three European countries that are heavily involved in the P5+1 negotiations, so I met already five or six times with the three foreign ministers, with William Hague from Britain, with Fabius from France, and with Westerwelle from Germany.”

The aide began shuffling in his seat and tapping his glass against the table—the universal signal for We need to run. Steinitz didn’t seem to notice. “Then I met all the chiefs of the intelligence apparatuses of those countries,” he continued. I thanked Steinitz again for his time. But the thought reminded him of something else. “By the way, my effort now, I am really in charge of maybe the most critical issue, the Iranian file, on behalf of the Israeli government, but in addition to this, I am the minister of intelligence, which means that I am to a certain extent in charge of Mossad, Shin Bet, and the Israeli Atomic Agency. And I plan to establish a real office or real ministry on intelligence in Israel.”

The aide began staring at the kitchen clock and very conspicuously looking at his watch; the prime minister was waiting. But Steinitz continued the thought. We ended up speaking for another 10 minutes. He returned, as he often had, to his first love, philosophy, and to perhaps his proudest accomplishment: His first book, An Invitation to Philosophy, a best-seller which he began writing as an undergraduate. “People said, you should be reading an introduction to philosophy, not writing one,” he said. He paused, as if considering the distance between his life then and his current position. “I still feel most comfortable,” he told me before taking his leave, “as a philosopher.”

***

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A Loyal Ally to Netanyahu Moves to Center Stage as Iranian Talks Heat Up

Yuval Steinitz, a philosopher-turned-politician and former peace activist, is Netanyahu’s point person on Iran