Olmert transfers control of religious affairs to Shas

PMO source warns that party may take advantage of new powers to increase its influence ahead of the next national election.

yitzhak cohen 298 88 (photo credit: The Knesset)
yitzhak cohen 298 88
(photo credit: The Knesset)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will transfer complete control over religious affairs to MK Yitzhak Cohen (Shas), recreating a ministry that was dismantled four years ago. A spokesman in the Prime Minister's Office said Wednesday that there would be no changes in the budget allotted for religious services, nor would there be an increase in manpower. "It is a technical change," said the source. "What was until now under Cohen's control de facto will also be under his control de jure. Now the prime minister won't have to sign so many documents." However, a senior source in the Prime Minister's office who is involved with religious services warned that Cohen would take advantage of his new powers to increase Shas's influence ahead of the next national election. "He's going to bring in his own director-general, his own aides, his own office manager. And he will also try to push Shas supporters onto religious councils all over the country," said the source. Cohen could not immediately be reached for comment. Four years ago, a government coalition that included Shinui and the National Religious Party voted to dismantle the Religious Affairs Ministry in an attempt to depoliticize the services. Traditionally, the NRP or Shas had received the portfolio and used its budget to parcel out jobs to supporters. After the dismantling of the ministry, its functions were given to different ministries. For instance, responsibility for the preservation of holy sites was transferred to the Tourism Ministry, while responsibility for the building of synagogues and other religious edifices was moved to the Construction and Housing Ministry. Jurisdiction over religious services was transferred to the Religious Services Authority in the Prime Minister's office. When Shas joined the Olmert government, Cohen was assigned the religious affairs portfolio, dependent on the prime minister's approval.