Analysis |

Israel’s Social Equality Ministry Is More Like the Crony Hiring Ministry

Minister Gila Gamliel is doing a lot to help Israeli Arab society, but she's making odd appointments at a ministry some say was set up just for her.

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Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel
Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel Credit: Emil Salman

Gila Gamliel knew that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn’t let her down. “I’m not worried,” she told TheMarker in May 2013. “I have an explicit promise that I’ll be the first to join the government once a Likud portfolio frees up.”

Gamliel was confident that her proximity to Netanyahu, her battles for him against the Knesset Finance Committee and her outspoken style, which works pretty well with her Likud colleagues, would pave the way to a ministerial role.

She was right. It took two years, but she got the Senior Citizens Ministry when the next government was sworn in in March 2015, even if she had wanted the Communications Ministry. Moreover, Gamliel requested and received expanded powers her tiny ministry, which had been established in 2007, turned into the Social Equality Ministry, handling a melange of hopelessly unrelated topics.

As the ministry’s website says: “The Social Equality Ministry promotes senior citizens in Israel, advances the status of women ... promotes the economic development of the Arab community through the Economic Development Authority for minority-owned businesses, promotes the young, and promotes and implements national policy on using information technology.”

The ministry has a staff of 122 and a budget of 817 million shekels ($225 million) small compared with other ministries. “It’s a small, weak and eclectic ministry. It was created for Gamliel as a political necessity, resulting in a patchwork of unrelated bits,” one source says.

“What’s the connection between handling senior citizens and the young and Arab society? And it also runs the Digital Israel project. What does that have to do with the other parts? The minister says she’ll strengthen small businesses over the Green Line to counter BDS, and again, what’s the connection? When you jump from subject to subject, it’s hard to create coherent, deep processes.”

As a source puts it, “They have good intentions over there. For example, regarding senior citizens, they’re more active than before. The organizations in that area see change and are happy with it, but the structure remains a problem. The ministry has just a few dozen employees, it doesn’t even have an accountant, and the relationship between the subjects hardly allows synergies.”

Like every minister, there are things she’s interested in and things she isn’t interested in, the sources say, though they admit that, to her credit, when she isn’t interested, she isn’t disruptive either.

“Only when it comes to public relations, where she’s keenly sensitive and nothing moves but by her grace, does she let people work,” another source says. “This is better than other ministers, who meddle and block projects. But because it’s hard to prove successes at this ministry, she has a tendency to take credit for things she didn’t do, such as Plan 922 – a five-year plan for Arab society.”

Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, right, in the Knesset.Credit: Knesset

This program was approved in December 2015 and is unquestionably an impressive achievement. For the first time since the establishment of the state, the government passed a five-year plan to handle problems afflicting the Arab community. The program, with its budget of around 15 billion shekels, was led by the Finance Ministry’s budgets department – and surprisingly won support from Gamliel.

In contrast to Likud ministers like Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin and Miri Regev, Gamliel stood firm and defended the program, says a source at the Finance Ministry.

“It was surprising not only because it meant working against her party colleagues, which will have implications regarding potential voters, but because she was chosen to handle Arab society. It was a happy surprise. She didn’t initiate the program, but she could have blocked it, and she did the opposite,” the source says.

“Moreover, the ministry supports Iman Saif, the head of the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian Sectors at the Prime Minister’s Office, which undertook to implement the program. Saif was also ... surprised on the upside. On this matter she acted professionally, not as a politician. The ministers in this government are busy promoting their own agendas and that of their parties, so her move isn’t a trivial one.”

Starting under Sharon

Gamliel joined the Knesset 14 years ago at age 29 after chairing the student union at Ben-Gurion University. Late in that term, she was named deputy agriculture minister in Ariel Sharon’s government. In the next government she was deputy minister for the advancement of women and young people at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Her efforts included a year of free university for military veterans, maternity leave for students and a students village in Lod. She also worked on the government’s decision to establish 10,000 spaces in dorm rooms as recommended by the social-justice report penned by economic adviser Manuel Trajtenberg, as well as on efforts to make soldiers eligible for public-housing aid.

Not everyone is impressed by her achievements. As a fellow Knesset member puts it, “If she cared about advancing women, why haven’t we heard her speak on raising the retirement age for women, while we’ve heard from Zehava Galon, Shelly Yacimovich and Orli Levi-Abekasis? Worse, how could the authority for the advancement of women have become so weakened in her term?”

In January 2016, Vered Swid completed two terms as head of that authority, which operated under the Prime Minister’s Office before being transferred to the Social Equality Ministry. Everybody knew Swid wouldn’t be rehired, a source says, and Gamliel had her own candidate.

That candidate was Gamliel’s childhood friend Rinat Danon, but twice the Civil Service Commission ruled her out because of her lack of managerial experience. Gamliel tried to get around this by going to the attorney general, but that didn’t work.

While Danon’s candidacy was under examination, the Civil Service Commission received a report on her hours working as an adviser to the minister. It showed days when she began at 8 A.M. and finished at around midnight, and a Saturday when she began working at 8:30 P.M. and finished at 3 A.M.

The Civil Service Commission says that on Thursdays in 2012 Danon was studying for a master’s degree at Tel Aviv University, but her study hours were claimed as working hours approved by the minister. Since the reports arrived after Danon finished working for the minister, the matter was dropped. Gamliel declined to answer questions about Danon or other associates; in fact she  declined to answer most of our questions, saying they were “unworthy.”

Meanwhile, the authority for the advancement of women remains without a chief. Recently the women’s lobby announced support for the appointment of Danon, saying that such a hire isn’t rare and that nobody says a word when it happens to men.

A raft of shady appointments

Maybe every appointment raises eyebrows because the Social Equality Ministry is so small. Take the tapping of Benny Yanai, the chief of staff for director general Avi Cohen. In February 2015 Yanai was turned down for a senior human-resources position at the tax authority after he was found to have fabricated parts of his résumé.

Yanai was tried by the civil service tribunal and the case ended in a plea bargain: He was severely rebuked, fined one month’s salary in 10 payments and was barred from the tax authority until the end of February 2016. But the day after he left the authority he got that good job at the Social Equality Ministry.

The Civil Service Commission says that after his stint, if he wants a civil-service job, he’ll have to apply like anyone else, and can’t return to the tax authority. Cohen is familiar with the tribunal; in 2013 he was rebuked for helping out a Likud candidate.

Other appointments raising eyebrows include political adviser Yoav Dabush, a veteran Likud activist, and members of the Kamir family. Hanan Kamir, son of Yair and Ruth Kanir who run a hair styling school in Petah Tikva, is Gamliel’s make-up and hair guru. In 2010, when Gamliel was deputy minister at the Prime Minister’s Office, he sought a job for Hanan’s sister, Dikla Kamir-Eliyahu, and made her deputy head of the authority for the advancement of women. Their relationship wasn’t disclosed. Swid, the head of the authority, was dissatisfied with Kamir-Eliyahu and sought to get her fired.

Dikla’s husband is Guy Eliyahu, who was Gamliel’s deputy as head of the National Students Union and then served as her media adviser at the Prime Minister’s Office in 2011. He signed a conflict-of-interest agreement because of his wife’s position and left the job in 2013.

But he didn’t stay unemployed for long. He was hired to head the center for young people in Petah Tikva, where the Kamir family has hair and makeup businesses. The Social Equality Ministry is a main funder for these centers. Another sister, Eti (Kamir) Sagis, worked as an aide to Gamliel until recently.

Spokespeople for the Social Equality Ministry said the relevant committee had followed proper procedure in approving the director general, and approved the hiring of the chief of staff. They said proper procedures had also been followed at the centers for young people.