Analyze This: The Aflalo appointment

It's time to absorb the Absorption Ministry.

aflalo 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
aflalo 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Whatever other qualities he may lack - such as an ability to speak adequate English - no one could argue that newly appointed Immigrant Absorption Minister Eli Aflalo isn't a loyal trooper to his party leader. Aflalo is best known to the public for an episode four years ago when, after suffering a mild stress-related stroke while in the Knesset, he returned to the chamber after a few days straight from the hospital in a wheelchair to support then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in the crucial vote on disengagement. Aflalo later followed Sharon from the Likud to Kadima and has remained a staunch supporter of his successor, serving faithfully as coalition chairman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. His loyalty was rewarded this week with his appointment to the cabinet - although with what is regarded, at least by his colleagues, as the consolation prize of ministries, evidenced by the fact that it was readily abandoned by outgoing minister Ya'acov Edri when given the option of instead becoming minister for the development of the Negev and Galilee. It wasn't always thus, even until fairly recently. The Absorption Ministry had a vital role to play during the 1990s, when it oversaw the massive influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and tens of thousands from Ethiopia. This was also a period when the office was directed by enthusiastic ministers who took their job seriously. "Yuli Edelstein, who ran the ministry during the Netanyahu and Barak governments, was probably the best and most suited for the job in recent years," said a professional who has worked for over two decades in the aliya and absorption field. "Edelstein was a Russian immigrant himself, spoke fluent English, and really believed what he was doing was important." In recent years though, as the rate of aliya has declined to a 20-year low of some 20,000 annually and the ministry has seen its budgets and functions cut back, the job has come to be seen more like a burden than reward for aspiring MKs. "Tzipi Livni a few years ago was probably the best of the recent bunch, if only because she had the brains to understand that it's a good way to connect with the American-Jewish community," says the professional. "But Ze'ev Boim and Edri [Aflalo's predecessor] seem to view the job as a punishment they couldn't wait to be rid of. And If Olmert were serious about appointing someone appropriate for the position, there are other Kadima MKs he could have considered." Among them is MK Marina Solodkin; as a Russian immigrant she would have been natural, save for a rebellious streak that has annoyed the prime minister every bit as much as Aflalo's loyalty has pleased him. Even more fitting though would have been newly appointed MK Shlomo Mula, a former Jewish Agency official who, as an Ethiopian-Israeli, hails from the one immigrant community that probably most needs the ministry's assistance. A bigger question is whether the Aflalo appointment should be taken as the surest sign yet that the time has come for the absorption ministry itself to be closed, and its remaining functions absorbed into other government offices. Perhaps in an effort to find new purpose for his office, out-going minister Edri focused during his brief time in the position on the task of convincing Israelis who had left the country, the yordim, to return home. "Is this what we need an Absorption Ministry for?" asks the exasperated professional. "Those yordim who have become successful don't need help to come back, so we need an office to chase after the ones who have failed overseas?" "Who really needs the ministry anymore?" asks the professional. "They're out of the ulpan business now and are closing down absorption centers. Private groups like Nefesh b'Nefesh and AMI are taking over many of the immigrant assistance functions, and the banks now give out financial aid directly to olim. "Israel-Diaspora relations are being handled by the Jewish Agency - whose chairman, Zeev Bielski, has cabinet status - and by the new task force in the Prime Minister's Office headed by Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel. Whatever is left over could easily be folded into the Interior Ministry, and they could save money by shutting down an unnecessary bureaucracy." That won't happen, though, as long as prime ministers such as Olmert still view it as a convenient way to award loyal MKs with the title of minister, and shove them into a chair at the already over-crowded cabinet table. So welcome to the club, Minister Aflalo. If it's any consolation, given your recent medical history it must at least be reassuring to know you've been given a job that's surely not going to prove particularly stressful. [email protected]