(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi)
It's difficult to know whether Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit's friendly and down-to-earth demeanor has something to do with his future political designs on the premiership or whether it is purely and simply his warm Middle-Eastern/Moroccan heritage shining through.
During our hour-long interview with the Kadima minister - who says almost immediately that his short terms in as many as four cabinet posts in the last year-and-a-half mean he can waste no time bringing about change in one of the most bureaucratic, trouble-ridden ministries - he asks politely for time out to give his son some advice over the phone, sips freely on his black Turkish coffee and shares with us stories of his childhood growing up in North Africa.
Despite the pleasantries, however, it is clear that this former housing and construction, transportation, finance and justice minister means business, and he seems extremely in tune with the issues he is up against - corrupt and bankrupt local authorities, the age-old debate about citizenship in the Jewish state and Israel as the center of Jewish life. He is also aware that to implement any of his ideas, he must take on a staff of stubborn public servants who made life very difficult for some of his predecessors.
And, as for the impossible bureaucracy of the Interior Ministry - which could drive even the most patient of Israelis or potential Israelis insane - Sheetrit is clear: "That's going to change and I'm going to change it. There is no reason why people have to get services at such a low level or why they have to wait so long."
"When I was justice minister," recalls Sheetrit, who genuinely seems to have nothing to hide, "I announced plans to put the land registration details up on the Internet. The workers immediately called a strike, which lasted for three months, but I did not give up. I said: 'I don't care if you want to strike, I will close you down and privatize you.' They quickly started to negotiate with me and now the information is up on the Internet. The same thing applies here."
But Sheetrit, 59, isn't all about being tough. He acknowledges that the conditions for workers in the Interior Ministry are extremely poor and that this might explain some of the office's roughness and resistance to change.
"Their conditions are the worst I've seen in any ministry, and I've been in a few ministries," he said. "No one ever took care of them, but I will. I'll improve their situation and create a sense of local patriotism, of pride in what they are doing."
While Sheetrit's management skills seem right on track for tackling some of the inevitable challenges, it is also his previous experience in national and local politics which creates the impression that he was born for the job. His resumÃ© is long, but certain elements stand out as ideal qualifications for the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for local government, planning and building and registration of status.
Born in Morocco in 1948, Sheetrit moved here with his family in 1957. In 1974, he was elected mayor of Yavne and went on to serve the town for three consecutive terms. He proudly highlights that fact, saying: "I am the first interior minister who was a mayor, so I know the issues very well from first hand."
His own experiences notwithstanding, Sheetrit also witnessed the complex issues of aliya and immigrant absorption first hand during a stint as treasurer of the Jewish Agency between 1988 and 1992.
"I don't think we should push people to come to Israel," reflects Sheetrit, who is ready to raise a public debate over the Law of Return and the right of any Jew who moves here to receive automatic citizenship. "We should attract people to live here because it is the best place for Jews to live."
What would you like to achieve while you are in office?
Our ministry is responsible for the registration of the population, and I think we have a serious problem in that the documentation here is among the worst in the world. It is so easy to fake Israeli passports and ID cards that, according to the police, there are more than 350,000 people living here with false identities, pretending to be Israelis. These people are causing us a hell of a lot of problems.
Fake documents are being used in every way possible. For example, if you lose your ID card, someone can take it, change the photo and end up selling your house or getting into your bank account. It's terrible. I've been shouting about this for years and I plan to turn things upside down and conduct matters in a much more sophisticated way.
When will you start making this change?
I'm going to do it as fast as possible. The fact that our documentation is not on a good level is giving a free pass to a lot of people to manipulate the State of Israel. I'm continually astonished by the intolerable easiness of getting into Israel and much more by the intolerable easiness of staying here.
It might be easy for those people to get in, but what about Western Jews who want to come? Doesn't the ministry make it harder for them?
I'm all for the Conservative and Reform Jews coming in. I have no problem with that. You know, we have been accused in the past of being racist because we allow only Jews to come. We are not racists. Israel is the only place where Jews can really feel free. Every Jew can come to Israel openly, but that shouldn't mean that every Jew should automatically receive citizenship. I think that we should open Israel to every Jew who wants to live with us, who wants to be part of us, who wants to link his destiny with Israel.
Does that mean you are willing to take on the Rabbinate over the conversion issue? That is one of the main barriers stopping many American Jews from coming here.
Who says so? They are recognized as Jews and it does not matter where they come from.
But many of them can't get married here.
Yes they can. They just cannot get married in the Rabbinate. So who needs it? When I was justice minister, I prepared a bill to solve the problem of those who cannot be married by the Rabbinate. It is called the marriage registration bill and suggests that a registrar of marriages be appointed to marry those who cannot be married by the Rabbinate and then they can be listed as married by the justice minister and receive all the rights.
It is ridiculous that 350,000 Israelis have to go to Cyprus to get married. It's terrible and we should solve it.
Back to citizenship in general, what do you mean that we shouldn't give it out automatically?
I welcome every Jew who wants to live here, even if he doesn't have economic possibilities, but I don't have to give him citizenship automatically. We should discuss it and we should create criteria like in every other country.
So you would change the Law of Return?
I haven't suggested we change anything yet, but, in my opinion, it should be discussed now, after 60 years. I don't think we should push people to come and live in Israel. We should attract Jews to come here. Israel should be enhanced to become the best place for Jews to live. Why would an American Jew want to come and live here unless we create situation where he will think that the best future for his family, for his children, is in Israel.
Do you think that on the eve of Israel's 60th anniversary we should be changing the country's philosophy?
I think we should discuss it. In such a discussion, everyone can bring his own point of view. Maybe we'll come out with some different solutions. If you don't touch a subject because it's not pleasant, then you'll find yourself in trouble.
What else is on your agenda?
I want to stabilize the local governments. I am sorry to say that the situation we face today is not the same as it was when I was a mayor. Today, in every municipality there are 10 to 15 political factions, making it very difficult for the mayor to have control because he has to come to an agreement with each council member separately. I want to change it and drastically cut the number of the members in each municipal council according to its population. By doing so, I will be able to stabilize the municipalities.
What about the municipal budgets?
There are big troubles in many municipalities and more than 10 have been dissolved in the last year for totally failing to stick to their budgets. Many have very big deficits. I plan to establish much closer supervision over the municipalities.
How will you do that?
Again, this is something that has changed over the years. When I was mayor of Yavne for 13 years, I only visited Jerusalem three times on municipality matters. Today, every mayor finds himself in Jerusalem every week. That's terrible.
The Interior Ministry's district managers have been castrated. In my time, the district manager was very powerful - he was the one who approved my budget and all my activities. He was always close by and was able to check what was going on in the municipality and react immediately. What [some unnamed interior minister did afterward] by castrating those people was to create a situation in which everyone needed the minister. Now, everyone has to run to Jerusalem because the minister wanted more power. I want to delegate more authority to the district managers, so that the mayors should not have to come to Jerusalem at all.
Your ideas are very practical. What accounts for that?
When I arrive in a place where I'm the authority, I act. I do all these practical things because I know what to do and I'm not afraid to do it. I'm not trying to be popular and do the wrong things for Israel. I'm trying to state my opinion and act accordingly. It's a matter of guts, you have to do what you think is right and not always what the people want. A good leader is one who leads the herd and is not always looking back to see where the herd is going. That's what Israel needs, strong leaders; when we have good leaders, then Israel will change.