Herzog backs down, accepts Social Affairs portfolio

Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog surprised his Labor colleagues on Thursday when he announced that he would trade his Tourism portfolio for the Social Affairs Ministry. Herzog had been under pressure to make the move for three weeks, but had vigorously rejected calls to leave the Tourism Ministry. Labor central committee members received many text messages over the last few days calling for protests against Herzog. "I will not be a pawn in the chess game of anyone - not of the prime minister and not of Amir Peretz," Herzog said last week. "Social Affairs is an important portfolio but in the present circumstances the story is that I am in a political struggle and [Peretz is] using the portfolio cynically in a way that's not right." But Peretz did not know that Herzog was secretly negotiating behind his back with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Herzog and Olmert finalized the move in four meetings over the past two weeks, and Herzog presented Peretz with a done deal on Thursday morning. In a press conference at Tel Aviv's Beit Sokolow, Herzog accused Peretz of conducting a "witch hunt" against him and using "cynical political behavior" to try to force him to switch portfolios. But he said Olmert persuaded him to take the portfolio in spite of Peretz's behavior. "What determined my decision was that Olmert approached me discretely last week and we analyzed the needs of the portfolio and what could be done," Herzog said. "After deep contemplation and many doubts and after seeing that all my requests were met completely, I decided to accept the challenge." Olmert promised Herzog a significant increase in government funding for youth at risk and that they would cooperate in drafting a long-range plan for fighting poverty. He said additional government investments would be made to help the elderly, the handicapped and battered women. But Finance Ministry officials said the budget for 2007 would not be changed on Herzog's behalf. Herzog said that reforming the Social Affairs Ministry after two years without a minister was a Sisyphean task. He asked for the support of the Labor leadership for the mission he took upon himself. In a meeting of the Labor executive committee, Peretz took credit for Herzog's appointment. He said that he stood up to Olmert by insisting that Labor receive the Social Affairs portfolio if it did not go to United Torah Judaism. "It's unfortunate that it took so long, but I feel very proud now," Peretz said. Privately one Labor official called Herzog a "dishrag" for agreeing to switch portfolios. Labor leadership candidate Danny Yatom said he was glad that Herzog "finally put an end to the shameful bickering among Labor ministers about who would not take the Social Affairs portfolio upon himself." National Religious Party head Zevulun Orlev, who was the last man to hold the portfolio until he quit two and a half years ago, said that Herzog's appointment "did not hide the nakedness of a government that abandoned the weakest sectors of the population."