Toward the end of 2003, the government made a festive decision to close the Religious Affairs Ministry. Shinui considered it the height of its accomplishments. So do you think that the superfluous ministry disappeared from the landscape, and that the Jewish nation is saving NIS 1.5 billion annually? That's what you think. The ministry has not disappeared. It has only changed addresses. Instead of Religious Affairs Ministry, it is now called the national Authority for Religious Services, and it is located deep inside the Prime Minister's Office. Instead of being run by an elected minister, it is being run de facto by MK Omri Sharon, who is turning the local religious councils into the largest appointments arena of the Likud Central Committee.
Dismantling the ministry did not save the taxpayer even one shekel. Barely a single clerk returned home; the employees moved to other ministries, mainly to the Education Ministry, even though most of them are political appointments of Shas and National Religious Party (NRP) ministers, and their qualifications and education level are significantly lower than those of other civil servants. Most of them got their jobs as "the cousin of," "the neighbor of," "a friend of," "an activist in." A pathetic ministry in terms of its manpower quality.
At the height of the festivities, in 2000, the ministry's budget was about NIS 1.5 billion, which was divided into two main parts. The yeshiva budget (NIS 715 million), which was used to fund yeshivas (NIS 600 million), and income supplements for yeshiva students (NIS 115 million). The budget was transferred to the Education Ministry without any change.
The second large budget outlay is for religious councils. The coalition agreement between Shinui and the NRP, which assumed the validity of a government decision, determined that the religious councils would cease to exist, and would be transferred to the local councils as departments of religious services, like welfare or education departments.
That is an important and fundamental decision, because when we occasionally complain about the level of administration and budgetary monitoring at the local councils, we must be reminded that it is "pure gold" compared to administration at the religious councils, where politics reign and the only competition is between the NRP and Shas - as to who will find more jobs for associates - and to hell with professional criteria.
That is why it is right and justified to dismantle the religious councils and turn them into local council departments. In that way, they would come under supervision of the municipality and the interior minister, with the local council head responsible for providing religious services in the most efficient manner - for the benefit of the entire public.
But politics are stronger than any logical decision. Instead of being dismantled, the religious councils were transferred to the PMO, and Omri Sharon began exploiting the golden opportunity to ensure the appointment of dozens of Likud Central Committee members to the 134 religious councils that fell into his hands. Each of these councils has a kind of board of directors with a chair and deputies, who benefit from expense payments from office services and other perks. They are not required to be religious.
The ministry's director general, Ilan Cohen, embarked on a campaign to clean up the situation, and suggested transferring the councils to a "National Authority for Religious Services" to be located in the PMO. The cabinet decided three weeks ago to establish the authority, and Meir Spiegler, a veteran Likud wheeler-dealer, was appointed religious services administrator.
And therefore, instead of decentralizing and streamlining religious services, while at the same time saving a lot of money for Israelis, a new centralized, politicized and inefficient structure has been created. The Religious Affairs Ministry that was closed has been reopened, as customary in the State of Isra-bluff. The budget for religious services has not decreased, but in fact has increased.
The cabinet recently decided to renew salary payments to religious council heads, payments that were stopped in May 2004. Because when it comes to party activists, they need a salary as well. Otherwise, how will they know for whom to vote in the Likud Central Committee?
That is how Omri Sharon is building his father's political power. Even in the affair of the "straw companies" and "Annex Research," Sharon Junior operated in order to increase his father's chances to win the 1999 primaries. Because of this affair, the State Prosecutor's Office intends to file a harsh indictment against him.
In response, Sharon's attorney has submitted a plea bargain proposal to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz in which Omri Sharon will admit to some of the accusations, but the severe indictments, which involve imprisonment, will be erased.
Mazuz has not yet decided on his position regarding the plea bargain, but if he agrees, he has to add a central provision: Omri Sharon's total retirement from political life. He has done enough damage. Now we need a somewhat cleaner political life.
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