(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Nearly a month since former tourism minister Yitzhak Herzog announced his willingness to take over the vacant Social Affairs portfolio, the Knesset plenum Wednesday finally approved Herzog's appointment to the position, along with several other new cabinet ministers.
While MK Yizhak Aharonovitch (Yisrael Beiteinu) became the new tourism minister and MK Raleb Majadle (Labor-Meimad), the science, culture and sports minister, it was Herzog's finally beginning his stint as social affairs minister that had been most anticipated. Israel has been without a minister responsible for social welfare since the current government took power a little less than a year ago.
In his speech to the Knesset plenum Wednesday, Herzog acknowledged that his new job was "a big challenge," but said he was "happy that Israel now had a minister in charge of the Social Affairs Ministry."
Pnina Ben-Ami, Herzog's spokeswoman, said that since agreeing to take over the ministry last month, Herzog had already started exploring some of the pressing social issues he will be forced to tackle, such as the war on poverty, the growing number of children and youth at risk and conditions of the disabled community.
"The reason his appointment was delayed was due to the political negotiations within the cabinet," she said, highlighting the refusal by MK Ya'acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) to step down as Finance Committee chairman, a position he has held for nearly four years. The committee voted Wednesday morning to remove Litzman as chair, thus enabling the new cabinet appointments to take place.
Ben-Ami added that Herzog was planning to meet officially with senior directors at the Social Affairs Ministry on Thursday.
"I just hope that by Rosh Hashana, there will be fewer people who are in need of food aid and that by then the government will have a comprehensive program to care for them," commented Ran Melamed, Deputy Director of Social Policy and Communication for Yedid, the association for community empowerment, upon hearing that a social affairs minister had finally been approved.
Asked what he believed Herzog's first priority in his new role should be, Melamed said that he needed to improve the situation for the country's social workers "who are understaffed and underpaid."
During a press conference last month, Herzog promised he would be a partner to establishing a ministerial committee to fighting poverty and reducing social gaps. He also promised millions of shekels for welfare centers, battered women's shelters and other causes and said that the name of the ministry would be changed to the Welfare and Social Affairs Ministry.
According to the National Insurance Institute's semi-annual poverty report released in January and covering the last half of 2005 and the beginning of 2006, the total number of Israelis living under the poverty line stood at 1,630,100, compared to 1,630,500 reported at the end of 2005. The number of families living below the poverty line was 404,000, with close to half (174,600) being working families and more than half (238,600) families with children. Thirty-five percent of the nation's children were reported as living in poverty.