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In a meeting at the Prime Minister's Office during the war, one of the participants remarked that there is no minister of social affairs. "What do you mean, there is no minister of social affairs?" Prime Minister Ehud Olmert snapped. "I am the minister of social affairs." Olmert's response reflects cynicism and insensitivity, for which no declarations about his deep concern for the civilian population and his commitment to rehabilitating the north can atone. His comment is as much in need of an official examination as are other matters.

Israel has had no minister of social affairs for the past 20 months. After MK Zevulun Orlev (National Religious Party) resigned from the government because of his opposition to the disengagement plan, the prime minister at that time, Ariel Sharon, retained the portfolio so that United Torah Judaism could play a double game: joining the coalition and enjoying its benefits, but not joining the government and thereby recognizing the Zionist state de jure. This enabled MK Avraham Ravitz to serve as deputy minister for a year and to surround himself with aides who took care of the party loyalists. And since Olmert came to power, he has been holding the portfolio for Ravitz in an effort to lure UTJ into the coalition, despite the ultra-Orthodox party's serious differences with Kadima over issues of principle.

Olmert is thus holding more than a million of the country's weakest and most needy citizens hostage to contemptible political considerations. Nothing can induce him to change his mind: neither a war that was in large measure fought on the backs of this working-class population, nor the mission of rehabilitating the physical and mental ruins of their lives. If a commission of inquiry is established, it will have to conclude that by his failure to appoint a minister of social affairs, Olmert left the civilian population to its own devices.

And not only Olmert. So did the Labor Party, the prime minister's senior partner and the great social hope of the last elections. Labor lost most of the credit it received from the electorate back during the coalition negotiations, when it did not ask for any social affairs portfolio other than education. Whatever credit it retained it lost in the war, when it did not demand the appointment of a minister of social affairs, even on a temporary basis.

The absence of leadership in the Social Affairs Ministry was very noticeable during the war. Not only was there no one to cry out on behalf of the residents who were stuck in bomb shelters and the disabled who had no one to evacuate them, there was no one to make quick decisions and cut through the knot of crippling government bureaucracy without fear of exceeding his authority. Every decision of principle, such as the one that was made - belatedly - to organize food for the residents of the north, needed the authorization of the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, who acted as a kind of babysitter for the Social Affairs Ministry, in addition to all his other duties.

The Social Affairs Ministry is also playing a marginal role in the rehabilitation process. True, it is a member of one of the commissions of ministry directors general that are formulating operative plans, but it does not head any of the commissions and is also not a member of the steering committee for the rehabilitation project. Precisely when an orderly and comprehensive process of learning the lessons of the failures in managing the home front is needed, in order to prevent the recurrence of similar problems in the future, there is no one to lead it.

Every day without a minister of social affairs consolidates the ministry's status as an unimportant body, a mere channel for the transfer of funds to the wretched of the country and for showcasing the fake "compassion" about which Olmert and the finance minister, Abraham Hirchson, like to brag.

Upgrading and empowering the Social Affairs Ministry is an urgent necessity. To make it more attractive, the magic word "security" can be added to its name - the Ministry of Social Security. A minister with personal and political stature must be appointed to head the ministry, one with a genuine commitment to advancing a social policy based on justice and not charity. But if Olmert intends to appoint Ravitz again, in order to expand the coalition, it would be preferable to leave things as they are. That way, at least, the senior civil servants, who include talented, committed and experienced professionals, will be able to do the ongoing work without interference.