(photo credit: Channel 1)
With his appointment Wednesday as minister on welfare and education spending within the Finance Ministry, experts said Shas MK Meshulam Nahari was being handed "a very good opportunity" to influence decision-making and bring about positive change - and greater funding - for social issues.
"[That is] if he doesn't waste it only to obtain funding for the Shas school system," said Ya'acov Kop, director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel.
Kop expressed his satisfaction that a minister representing "social thought" was joining the Finance Ministry, which he said previously had not put a strong emphasis on social issues.
Due to his position several years ago within the Education Ministry, Kop said Nahari likely had developed an awareness of social issues, noting that despite conflicts that developed into coalition warfare, then education minister Yossi Sarid of Meretz later praised Nahari for not merely representing his own sectoral interests as a Shas parliamentarian.
Kop argued, however, that "if they are already appointing an additional minister, they should fill the post still standing empty" at the head of the Welfare Ministry itself. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is formally listed as Welfare Minister, as well, but in practice the seat is vacant, he noted.
Senior officials within the Welfare Ministry have told him that they "feel the absence" of a minister who would represent the ministry's needs with greater political power, Kop said.
"There is an open position there, and it is a pity that not many are jumping on it" despite promises made across the political spectrum that social issues would receive more attention, he said, adding that the fact that a Welfare Minister has yet to be appointed "stands in contradiction" to politicians' statements.
Dr. Roby Nathanson, director of the Israel Institute of Social and Economic Research, said that Nahari's agenda in the post should include advancing programs that help the poor without adding costs to the budget - through higher education, professional training, efficient distribution of transfer payments.
"It is possible to do many effective things for the welfare situation without adding budgetary spending. One must be creative," he said.
Nathanson earlier had proposed a NIS 4 billion social and welfare spending package but recognized that such funding would not be made available in the near future. The package included incentives to encourage employers, measures to ease the integration into the work force of a second breadwinner for poor families, negative income taxation (NIT) and other items.
"This is not only a question of money, but also of policy. For that, one needs much political power as well. This is not 'budget maintenance,'" Nathanson said, stressing that Nahari's mandate is "both professional and political."
"The subject of directing resources to social spending is one that requires political decisions as well," in addition to navigating among competing demands of "systems, sectors and political parties," he said.
Nathanson lamented the fact that none of the country's more senior leading politicians were interested in the position. "That is not good news" for those in favor of greater social spending, he said.
Nonetheless, Nathanson stressed that the question is not about the "the man himself specifically," but whether the government would give social spending a higher priority. Nathanson believes that, despite Nahari's appointment, "nothing has changed" in that regard.
"The welfare budget is minimal, and recent decisions do not indicate a change of direction in the matter," he said. "His appointment does not indicate change in the government's priorities regarding social matters."
National Religious Party chairman Zevulun Orlev, meanwhile, called Nahari's appointment inappropriate.
"Apparently, Shas prefers unnecessary political patronage positions to actually helping the poor," Orlev said. "At a time when there has been no welfare minister for two years, this appointment proves that this government and its socalled socioeconomic parties have betrayed the weak."
Nahari made headlines in 2000 when he expedited the downfall of the government of former prime minister Ehud Barak. Nahari, who was a first-time MK, was appointed deputy education minister under then-Meretz head Sarid.
Sarid refused to give Nahari any responsibilities, meet with him or acknowledge his existence in any way. Sarid infamously referred to Nahari as "the plant," because, in his view, Nahari's job was to sit in the corner and do nothing.
When Barak caved into Shas's demands to give responsibilities over haredi education to Nahari, Sarid pulled Meretz out of the coalition in June 2000. Other parties followed by pulling out in protest of the Camp David summit and Barak's government fell a few months later.