The man's running out of time. If Prime Minister Ariel Sharon does not manage to pass the 2005 budget in the Knesset by March 31, the government will fall. Elections would be held June 28.
It would also be the end of the disengagement plan. Who knows who would be the next prime minister, and what political power would be mustered? Therefore, it is crucial that Sharon convince Shas to support the budget.
Shas leader Eli Yishai has demonstrated statesmanship in Likud-Shas negotiations. He claims not to be interested in ministerial portfolios or honors, but rather only the welfare of the impoverished and meek masses, particularly hungry children.
Therefore, Yishai is prepared to abstain from the budget vote, which would allow it to pass, on condition that the Finance Ministry transfer hundreds of millions of shekels to the Shas educational network to subsidize school fees, expand its free lunch program, and help purchase school books. In short, these funds would benefit Shas' potential electorate - large families.
Yishai's attempt to be stately takes us back to the days when he served as interior minister in Sharon's first government in 2001-2002.
In those heady days, Interior Ministry grants were conditioned on local council leaders promising to build more synagogues and mikvas.
Accounting reports meant to prevent budgetary excesses were handed in at the end of the year, and were never carried out. Nor did anyone compel council heads to implement their recovery plans, which they submitted as many authorities became work placements for Shas hacks.
However, despite the budget deficits, the lack of budget funds, and the multitude of tasks involved in public service, Yishai made interesting use of some of his own budget.
According to information obtained by Haaretz, the Interior Ministry, under Yishai, transfered exorbitant amounts of money - NIS 40.4 million in 2001 and 33.1 million in 2002 - to the Religious Affairs Ministry to construct and renovate synagogues and mikvas.
And let us not forget that building such facilities supplies numerous jobs to Shas activists in towns and cities afterward.
Yishai's successor in the second Sharon government, Avraham Poraz, took over in 2003 and put an immediate end to this improper practice. Indeed, what in the world do synagogues and mikvas have to do with Interior Ministry duties?
It is of note that Yishai was not the only one to follow this practice. Former construction and housing minister Natan Sharansky transfered NIS 9.7 million to the Religious Affairs Ministry in 2001 and an additional NIS 9.4 million in 2002.
Now, with the Religious Affairs Ministry dismantled since early 2004, the Construction and Housing Ministry builds these facilities. An internal committee of the Accountant General's staff is meeting to examine all aspects of these past deals - were they legal, were they implemented properly? The intriguing findings lie down the road.
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