At Israel's Housing Ministry, It Helps to Wear a Kippa

Unions declare labor dispute, assert that most senior posts have gone to settlement supporters in two years since Uri Ariel took over ministry.

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Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel.
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel. Credit: Eyal Toueg

What are the qualifications for being a senior official in the Housing and Construction Ministry?

An examination of 10 appointments to jobs as division managers over the two years since MK Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) took over the portfolio show that you have to be male (all 10 met this criterion), part of the religious-Zionist camp (nine out of 10) and have worked with Ariel or Shlomo Ben-Eliyahu, the director general, in the past (a majority).

The alleged favoritism in senior appointments prompted scores of the approximately 300 employees of the ministry’s Jerusalem headquarters to stage a rally on Tuesday, and for the workers committee to declare a labor dispute.

“The top management does what it wants. It names whoever belongs to the right political party to posts without a tender, while those who have worked [in the ministry] for 20 and 30 years are not being promoted,” said Danny Bonfil, head of the Jerusalem region for the Histadrut labor federation.

Ariel, who is a long-time settler activist, took over the ministry with Ben-Eliyahu when it was undergoing a major organizational overhaul that saw a lot of veteran officials step down, according to Bonfil.

“Without blinking, the minster and director general advanced their own people,” he said. “Almost all the appointments went to religious males, and living in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] doesn’t hurt, either. This all came at the expense of promoting people working in the ministry.”

The ministry denies any favoritism, saying that of 50 tenders for managerial positions over the last two years, two-thirds were won by women or men who do not wear kippot.

“Every tender was conducted according to the rules and legal directives of the Civil Service Commission. The candidates met the criteria for the tender and were selected according to the law,” it said. “In any case where an appeal was filed on the tender results, they were categorically rejected by the Civil Service Commission and its legal adviser.”

Union leaders stressed that they didn’t regard everyone who wears a kippa or is a settler as unqualified for a senior post, but pointed to several appointments where the people named were inappropriate for the job. One example they pointed to is Yaakov Shenrav, who was named a little over a year ago as a deputy director general. Shenrav worked as treasurer for the Samaria Regional Council and then as a senior official for Tnufa, the government agency helping evacuees from the 2005 Gaza pullout.

The agency was supposed to end operations in the middle of 2013, but under the coalition agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Habayit Hayehudi, Tnufa was kept in operation and transferred from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Housing Ministry.

A few months later, an internal tender for the post of deputy director general was published – a job that hadn’t been filled in almost a decade and was open for Shenrav to win by virtue of the fact that he had recently become a ministry employee.

As deputy director general, Shenrav is responsible for all new housing construction, planning and related matters, even though he has no relevant experience.

Another appointment that union leaders pointed to is Natanel Lapidot, who was named head of the ministry’s new strategic planning unit in a tender in January 2014. Lapidot joined the ministry under its previous minister, Ariel Atias, as an aide to the director general at the time, Mordechai Mordechai.

Sources said that Lapidot, who is in his 30s, has no significant experience related to the demands of the job, but nevertheless was preferred over two senior officials with years of experience in the ministry.

The only senior appointment in the last two years that has come from within the ranks of the ministry was Yossi Shabbat, who was turned down for the strategic planning post but made head of the budget division. He is the only senior official named in the last two years who does not wear a kippa, union officials asserted.