They Have No God

Olmert wants to buy Shas so that it remains in the government under any circumstances, even after the release of the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War, and even if serious negotiations with the Palestinians begin.

There is no limit to the cynicism of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He has no money for the teachers, or for the lecturers, for protecting Sderot, for the death toll on the roads or for the health basket. But he has money for Shas, for cynical and vile political bribery that this week was directed to a particularly bad target: the reestablishment of the Religious Affairs Ministry, a ministry that had been the symbol of corruption.

Olmert wants to buy Shas so that it remains in the government under any circumstances, even after the release of the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War, and even if serious negotiations with the Palestinians begin. Because with four ministers paving the way for unlimited jobs, honors, funding and political appointments, it will be difficult for Shas to quit. Olmert has special expertise in buying the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties, going back to his time as mayor of Jerusalem. But even a prostitute's fee cannot be unrestricted.

At the end of 2003, the government made an official decision to shut down the Religious Affairs Ministry, and the closure went into effect in January 2004. Shinui saw this as the height of its achievements. The ministry is comprised of layers of political appointments, sometimes made by the National Religious Party and sometimes by Shas.

The education level of most of the ministry workers is significantly lower than most civil servants; most got their posts as "the cousin of," "the neighbor of," "the friend of," "the activist for." The ministry specialized in transferring large sums of money to associates and yeshivas, while making fraudulent reports to those meant to monitor it. The ministry gave religion a bad name, making it loathsome to most of the public.

Shinui was a naive party. It did not manage to destroy the Religious Affairs Ministry. Instead, its departments were dispersed among various ministries, and the budget for the religious councils was transferred to a new institution established in the Prime Minister's Office, called the National Authority for Religious Services. From the moment the religious services authority came into being, the pressure on Shas to bring back the glory of the ministry did not cease, since its activists and associates felt the shortage in jobs and funds.

The result was an improvement in religious services. The provision of service became less sectarian and more practical, and several hundred million shekels were saved every year. The ministry departments that were moved to other ministries also became more organized, and monitoring mechanisms were established.

But Olmert wanted Shas at his side, and everything else was swept under the rug. "I don't think that an Israeli prime minister needs to dedicate several hours a week to signing burial permits," Olmert said in explaining the change at the cabinet meeting this week where the ministry's reestablishment was approved.

It is true that this really is a waste of time for a prime minister, but there are solutions other than establishing an entire ministry.

If Olmert had the interests of the Israeli economy in mind rather than his personal survival, he would now be completing the step that Ariel Sharon began - shutting down the National Authority for Religious Services. If he cared about the taxpayers' money, he would put into practice a government decision from the Sharon era that would turn the religious councils into religious services departments within the local councils, just like municipal welfare and education departments. Such a move would save a tremendous amount of money and improve religious services.

At this week's cabinet meeting, not everyone danced to Olmert's tune. Six ministers voted against the decision, to their credit: Ehud Barak, Ami Ayalon and Isaac Herzog from the Labor Party; Avigdor Lieberman and Yitzhak Aharonovitch from Yisrael Beiteinu; and Roni Bar-On from Kadima.

Barak's vote is not inconsequential. He will, after all, need Shas if there comes a day when he will have to form a government. His vote and that of his two fellow Labor ministers signals the possibility of saving the situation, because the government decision is not the end of the road.

A majority in the Knesset is necessary to establish a new ministry. Therefore, if the opposition votes against the move and is joined by Labor and National Union, the government decision will be defeated and the mistake will not go through. But for that to happen, Benjamin Netanyahu and the entire Likud will also have to vote against the ministry. Will Netanyahu do the right thing, or will the smell of power and the Damocles sword of Shas make him forget his principles?