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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.

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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