Pushing a key element in its alternate agenda for survival, the shrunken cabinet of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud decided to close the Religious Affairs Ministry by the end of the month. The move is a key plank in Barak's "social revolution," a second option to rebuild a secular/left coalition in case peace talks with the Palestinians collapse.
Following a rash of cabinet resignations due to Barak's peace moves, the Israeli premier recently appointed Justice Minister Yossi Beilin to serve as interim head of the Religious Affairs Ministry as well. Beilin then called for the ministry's dissolution, with some of its duties transferred to other cabinet posts. Barak submitted the plan yesterday, and it was unanimously adopted, with Beilin placed at the head of a committee tasked with implementing the plan soon. "By October 1, I hope that there won't be such a ministry anymore," Beilin boasted.
Beilin said that over the years, the ministry has been allocating resources based on "partisan or ideological" interests and that transferring its services will ensure that decisions will be made on the basis of professional criteria. Barak heralded the decision as "a first and important step in the social-civil reform" that he announced last month.
The annual budget for the ministry and local religious councils is meager, say critics, so talk of substantial savings is not credible. The declaration to close the Ministry does not require a Knesset majority, but the transfer of the authorities to other government offices does require such a majority, which Barak does not have at this time.
Ultra-Orthodox parties have condemned the move as anti-religious, while some have noted that when he took office, Barak pushed through an unlimited expansion of the cabinet to expand the body to 24 seats, all for his own political purposes. And even militantly secular MK Tommy Lapid of Shinui party called it "hollow," saying, "If this is the beginning of Barak's secular revolution, it is totally meaningless."