PMO downplays Diaspora Affairs closure

Prime Minister's Office says move temporary and mandated by public service regulations.

Michael Melchior  88 (photo credit: )
Michael Melchior 88
(photo credit: )
The Prime Minister's Office on Monday downplayed the significance of the firing of the two officials who comprise the Diaspora Affairs Department at the PMO. The department, founded as a deputy ministry in 1999 by MK Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad) under the Ehud Barak government, brought issues of Diaspora Affairs, including anti-Semitism, education and Israel experience programs, to the cabinet level. The firing has met with criticism from some officials. One former PMO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the move meant that the PMO had abandoned the issue of Diaspora Affairs altogether. According to the PMO, however, the move was temporary and was mandated by public service regulations. The two officials, appointed by Melchior, "were political appointees," explained PMO spokeswoman Miri Eisin, "which means that [according to their contracts] their jobs end when the [appointing politician] is no longer in the position." Furthermore, Eisin told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, the move was not permanent. "The prime minister has declared his intention to appoint a minister for Diaspora Affairs [in the PMO], but this will be done along with the general cabinet reshuffle that will include other positions," she said. Asked why the officials were fired a short time before the expected cabinet reshuffle in mid-February, Eisin noted that their contract had simply ended. "They weren't actually fired," she emphasized. "Their contract wasn't extended," and this was in accord with public service regulations. It would also allow "the new incoming minister to bring his own people if he so wishes." Melchior told the Post, "I very much hope that the importance given to these issues in previous governments will remain." Diaspora issues, he said, should be handled "by ministers or at least deputy ministers who will coordinate this tremendous work." Meanwhile, the functions of the Diaspora Affairs Department were temporarily moved to the Department for Policy and Implementation in the PMO, which is headed by Lior Shalit, formerly a senior adviser to prime minister Ariel Sharon. In addition, the Foreign Ministry's Global Forum for Anti-Semitism, a government umbrella organization headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that brings together groups dealing with anti-Semitism worldwide, will coordinate government activities on that issue. According to the Prime Minister's Adviser for Diaspora Affairs Rachael Risby-Raz, placing the anti-Semitism issue in a department of the Foreign Ministry is a good idea in any case, since "the Foreign Ministry has the resources to deal with [anti-Semitism] in a serious way," she told the Post on Monday. "It's not the type of issue to be left out there, not looked after [when there isn't a cabinet position]." Melchior, however, disagreed that the Foreign Ministry could handle anti-Semitism alone. "Even in the Foreign Ministry, the war on anti-Semitism doesn't get a proper budget. You can't expect the foreign minister, who is strapped for cash, to be able to do this seriously. I'm very happy she's carried out the [Global] Forum, but to say that this demonstrates that the issue is central to the government - that's inappropriate," he said. The Foreign Ministry's Department for Combating Anti-Semitism, founded two years ago, has only two full-time positions. However, according to department director Aviva Raz-Shechter, the department's purpose is "to lead the cooperation and coordination" of other bodies, "including in the PMO, the Jewish Agency and elsewhere," that deal with anti-Semitism. In addition, she told the Post, "the department and its budget will grow with the growth of activities."