Needed: One Lucky Winner / Politicians Vie for Cushy Job as Mifal Hapayis Chairman

Billions of shekels at your disposal and a seven-year term assured combine to make the position of the Payis lottery chairman one of the most lucrative in the market.

Billions of shekels at your disposal and a seven-year term assured combine to make the position of the Payis lottery chairman one of the most lucrative in the market. No other job transforms its ruler into master of the kingdom and dispenser of funds at his discretion like the Payis chair. The position is now open, and a long line of political wheelers and dealers, including two acting ministers in the Israeli government, are vying for it.

From the moment the lucky winner is appointed, a politician need no longer dash from wedding to bar mitzvah, or break a sweat before election time. For seven years he will be safely ensconced in the comfortable Tel Aviv headquarters, receiving pilgrims who appear at his doorstep, and hearing only praise and compliments. "It's like being the president - after he is chosen, no one can budge him from his seat," said one source close to the race for the position. "Anyone who thinks there will be elections in 18 months would want to be a candidate."

Shimon Katznelson is set to step down from his position and the list of candidates to replace him is growing longer.

Contenders include dozens of politicians - Minister of Housing and Construction Ze'ev Boim (Kadima), Minister of Immigrant Absorption and Minister of the Development of the Negev and Galil Jacob Edery (Kadima), Rishon Letzion Mayor Meir Nitzan, Upper Nazareth Mayor Menahem Ariav and Maalot-Tarshiha Local Council Chairman Shlomo Buchbut. Lands Administration Director General Yaakov Efrati also appears in the list, along with Asher Kadosh, a Jerusalem businessman with close ties to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to name a few.

Sources close to the process say that Kadosh was the prime candidate in the former changing of guards, until Ariel Sharon came along and appointed Katznelson instead. Now, they say, Olmert has the chance to make good on an old promise. The sources also said that Eldar, who has served on the Payis board of directors for years, has also said that he was promised the job when left the Labor party to join Kadima.

So the fact that Katznelson has chosen to step down a year before completing his term is a surprise. "Prime Minister Olmert told me that I am making history, that I am the first chairman to step down at his own initiative," Katznelson said. From the Payis lottery, he will go to Mathew Bronfman's real estate firm Olympia Euro, which operates in eastern Europe.

Katznelson has denied that he is stepping down because of the state comptroller's report published in May of this year. Katznelson simply feels he has done everything he set out to do. "I am no longer challenged, but I did tell the prime minister that if I am authorized to set up a casino in Eilat, I will remain in order to do so," Katznelson said. According to Katznelson, the Prime Minister's Office Director General Ra'anan Dinur supports the establishment of a casino in Eilat as part of a family entertainment and vacation complex, and he was promised the opportunity to present his business plan and model during a session sometime this month.

The state comptroller's report criticized the transfer of Payis money to organizations linked to board of directors members, saying that Katznelson acted in a conflict of interest. But Katznelson denies that the report is the reason for his resignation.

"In the Knesset meeting that discussed the report it was pointed out that it was impossible that I had given money to one Rabbi who I had seen perhaps once, and another that I had never met," Ratznelson said. "I am proud that the Payis has given these people money, but they are not associates of mine.

"The bottom line shows that in the four and one half years that I have chaired the Payis, its profits have nearly doubled. The state comptroller's report refers to less than NIS 10 million shekels in a particular fund, and we are dealing with total funding of NIS 4 billion.

"The state comptroller referred to the fund for the needy. We have given grants to Latet, which provided a hot meal to 20,000 people on Rosh Hashana. We did not see who it went to. We transferred them NIS 1 million. The comptroller asked why we chose Latet, and we explained that it was because it is a well-known organization. I was hurt by the report. Not by the criticism, but by the fact that it was not right in terms of management culture. How is it possible that we provided answers, but not a single one was included in the report?" Katznelson said.

Summarizing four and a half years as chairman of the Payis, Katznelson says that he received an organization with a NIS 1.12 billion deficit, and is handing it back with NIS 1.6 million in its coffers. Revenues in 2007 totaled NIS 4 billion, up 33 percent since 2003. The lottery has allocated NIS 2.2 billion to public works, including construction of 3,600 classrooms, NIS 80 million allocated to artists and creators, NIS 60 million academic scholarships were granted to combat soldiers and NIS 65 million were donated to Magen David Adom and the Friend of the IDF organization.

The candidates available for comment have preferred not to comment.