On his first day in office, interim Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz sparked a diplomatic incident with Poland which led to the cancellation of an international conference in Israel that would have been a diplomatic coup for the Jewish state.
Not bad for less than 24 hours on the job.
Following the appointment of two ministers on Monday – MK Rabbi Rafi Peretz as education minister and MK Bezalel Smotrich as transportation minister – it is worth asking how much influence can an interim minister actually have, outside of sensitive and delicate ministries such as the Foreign Ministry.
One of Smotrich’s most significant functions will possibly happen not at the Transportation Ministry at all, but in the security cabinet to which he was also appointed on Monday. The Ministerial Committee for National Security Affairs, to give the forum its official title, is empowered to take decisions on matters of security and diplomacy, including operational decisions during times of war and conflict.
In theory, this makes Smotrich’s membership of the council significant in light of his outspoken views on security policy, especially regarding Gaza.
The hard-line MK, who heads the National Union – a constituent party of the United Right Wing Parties list – has repeatedly expressed in recent months his proposal to reconquer the Gaza Strip and reestablish the Gush Katif settlements that were evacuated during the 2005 Gaza disengagement. Such a move, he has said, will restore quiet and security to the southern border.
Smotrich repeated his proposal shortly after his appointment to the security cabinet was made public on Monday.
Will his position in this forum give him the opportunity to advance this agenda?
In short, the answer is no, said Col. (res.) Eran Lerman, former deputy director of the National Security Council (a separate and unrelated body) and Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
Lerman said that officially the security cabinet is “all important,” and that the prime minister needs approval from it for decisions on security during times of war. He pointed out, however, that it has become the customary convention for the security cabinet to delegate its power to a smaller group of ministers, often just the prime minister and defense minister, to enact policy and operational decisions during emergencies.
Lerman noted that former security cabinet member Naftali Bennett took great interest in the security cabinet and its workings, and voiced strong opposition to the approach taken by the IDF, in particular over what he described as the IDF top brass’ reluctance to destroy the Hamas terrorist tunnels.
Ultimately, the debates in the security cabinet, however heated, are just that. Those making the real decisions are much closer to the sharp end of the political hierarchy than the Transportation Ministry.
Nevertheless, Smotrich’s elevated political status will give him a greater opportunity to make his policies and opinions heard, even if his more radical ideas, such as the reconquest of Gaza, remain in the realm of fantasy.
In terms of the impact on the Transportation Ministry itself, Smotrich will also have limited means to make a mark.
Building public transportation infrastructure requires lengthy and laborious planning, while the current interim ministers will be in office for a maximum of six months (barring a third general election within 12 months). Thus Smotrich will have little to no impact on the Transportation Ministry.
Nor will he have the chance to generate political mischief in the Transportation Ministry, as some have speculated, since the authorization of construction and maintenance work on transportation infrastructure is the bailiwick of the labor and social services minister.
What, then, about interim Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz and the impact he might have in his new portfolio?
In terms of direct impact, it is possible and even likely that the Bayit Yehudi leader will have a much greater impact than his colleague Smotrich.
The Education Ministry, with its NIS 50 billion annual budget, is run by a labyrinthine bureaucratic system operating four different educational networks.
The network which will most interest Peretz, and critically his various advisers and associates, will be the State-Religious System because of the importance Peretz attaches to the stream of the religious-Zionist community that he comes from. Peretz’s background is the more conservative branch of the religious-Zionist community, known as the “Hardal,” and is associated with the hard-line Har Hamor Yeshiva and its rabbinical leadership.
The conservative religious-Zionist leadership has in recent years pushed for an ever greater focus on religious studies in the schools it has set up, as well as an elitist educational agenda to consolidate top pupils in elite schools, said Shmuel Shattach of the liberal religious-Zionist group Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah.
Shattach described Peretz as “a great person,” but expressed concern that the activists and politicos from the conservative wing of the religious-Zionist community will cajole the new minister into advancing these policies within the state-religious school system.
Shattach said that budgets can quite easily be redirected within the various school systems to make some schools more attractive to parents. These promotions could include providing school buses and lunches, and that this could be used to boost the Hardal schools at the expense of more inclusive, less ideological schools.
Outgoing education minister Naftali Bennett increased spending on Math and English, while his predecessor Shai Piron directed extra funds to schools serving pupils from lower socioeconomic background. These policies could be reversed by the interim minister.
And there could be broader effects on the state secular-school system, such as the provision of funds for teaching Jewish studies in secular schools to institutions from the religious-Zionist community, instead of more liberal institutions that often currently provide such teaching services.
“The interim minister cannot make big dramatic changes, but even small changes in the Education Ministry can change the whole direction of this ship, and that is what I am worried about,” said Shattach.
Ultimately, the new interim ministers will have scant time to make much impact because of the short duration of their tenure, and the necessity to return to the political hustings for the upcoming September 17 election, which will occupy increasingly large amounts of their time.
Nevertheless, both Peretz and Smotrich are new, prominent leaders of their parties, and are likely to obtain high office on a full ministerial basis in the next government, should the political Right prevail again in the upcoming election.
Their impact in the coming six months may just be the beginning of their influence in the country.
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