No more ministries

The Religious Affairs saga is proof of the frivolity with which ministries are set up or closed down.

knesset 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
knesset 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
For all practical purposes the Religious Affairs Ministry is slated to reappear Sunday as an autonomous executive entity. If any further proof were needed for the frivolity with which ministries are set up or closed down in this country, the latest twist in the Religious Affairs saga supplies it in abundance. Five years ago, when Shinui - the fiercely secular Knesset party that has since disbanded - prevailed, the Religious Affairs Ministry was shut down and its various functions distributed among a host of other bureaucratic subsections, mostly departments under the Prime Minister's Office. But since its entry into the Olmert coalition, Shas - the current government's only religious component - has agitated incessantly for the ministry's resurrection. A formal Shas demand for the formation of a "Ministry for Religious Services" has now been acceded to, though without formal title. The government today is slated to approve a decision to "separate the Religious Services Authority from the Prime Minister's Office framework." The Authority already has a minister in charge of its operations - Shas's Yitzhak Cohen. The change in status will in effect allow him to run his bailiwick both de facto and de jure with the independence of a fully-fledged ministry, without interference from the premier. Thus far Cohen lacked full authority and needed Ehud Olmert's countersignature for all decisions. The consensus in both coalition and opposition is that the departed and unmissed ministry is thereby returned to full political existence after years in which its absence was unfelt and unmourned. While there's little disputing its redundant nature, the ministry is politically essential for Shas. Indeed, it is the ultimate jewel in Shas's crown. Its clout in the religious sector is inestimable and contention for control of the ministry long fueled the feud between Shas and the NRP. The ministry in effect holds sway over the Chief Rabbinate and decisively influences the selection of municipal rabbis, synagogue construction, the building and maintenance of other religious facilities, allocations to yeshiva students, and the administration of rabbinical courts, religious councils and burial societies. With so much power at its disposal, it has also been frequently perceived as a magnet for corruption and gross irregularities. The decision to award this prize to Shas cannot be divorced from Olmert's pressing coalition concerns. Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu has been making the rounds among the coalition's weakest links to encourage them to quit the partnership. The government's need to shore up its support is undeniable and in this context it is crucial to sweeten the pot for Shas. Yet again we see incontrovertible evidence that the designations of many of our ministries bear no relation to objective concerns but are dictated by transient political interests, which are addressed at the public's expense and financed from the public coffers. The on-off-and-on-again Religious Affairs shenanigans aren't isolated occurrences, outrageous as the latest travesty is. All too many other existing ministries are artificial and superfluous creations. Were the Ministry for Strategic (Iranian) Affairs and the Ministry for Pensioners to disappear overnight, they'd be as unlamented as the ministries of the Arts, Science, Technology, Economics, Jerusalem, Regional Cooperation, Diaspora Affairs and other cynical ad hoc inventions. Even the much-coveted Infrastructures portfolio was a synthetic and patently pointless concoction. Tourism wasn't badly served via the Trade and Industry Ministry and Internal Security fared no worse under Interior Ministry auspices. There is likewise no reason why the functions performed by the Communications and Environment ministries cannot be folded into other ministries. These are all examples of the spendthrift ingenuity to which politicians resort to satisfy extortionist demands from coalition partners and thereby secure the parliamentary majorities that keep them in power. Even a Basic Law - limiting the number of ministries - was callously overlooked during the Barak and Sharon administrations and failed to curb the shamelessly opportunistic inflation in unquestionably uncalled-for ministries. By restoring an eminently unessential ministry, the prime minister is sending the worst possible message to his already distrustful citizenry. This signal of disrespect for the desires of the populace is hardly the hoped-for antidote for the contemporary overdose of sleaze in high places. Only by streamlining and promoting a leaner and cleaner government can the dangerously sagging faith in the national leadership be somewhat boosted. This step achieves the opposite.