Mazal Mualem
March 13, 2009 - 12:00am

Three factions are fighting over the Housing portfolio, which prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu has promised the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Shas is resolved to appoint the party's MK Ariel Atias - today minister of communications - as housing minister, while United Torah Judaism, the other ultra-Orthodox party, wants the ministry mainly to be in control of the Israel Lands Administration.

The leader of the far right National Union, MK Yaakov Katz, also insists on the Housing Ministry for his party "to make up by construction the crime of deporting [the settlers]" from the Gaza Strip.

Katz, who says the only portfolio he wants is Housing, intends to use it to increase the construction in and of settlements, even if the government negotiates with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu realizes the damage this appointment could cause vis-a-vis the Americans, so Katz's chances of becoming the next housing minister are slim at best.

The Housing Ministry, which until now was rarely desired by the ruling parties' coalition partners, has suddenly become a coveted asset.

The economic crisis and the disengagement, combined with the social agenda that Shas wishes to push, would make the ministry a means for the parties to grant benefits to their constituencies.

Shas, which has participated in almost all the governments since the mid-eighties, has never before demanded the Housing Ministry.

Now it wishes to ease the housing probles of the ultra-Orthodox community, where many couples are ineligible for a home mortgage as they lack a regular, sufficient income.

Shas also sees the ministry as a means of appealing to secular low-income families, thus potentially winning supporters from outside the ultra-Orthodox community.

UTJ, which traditionally refrains from placing a minister at the head of its cabinet portfolios, is demanding the deputy Housing Minister's post for MK Yaakov Litzman or MK Moshe Gafni. UTJ is also demanding the chair of the Knesset Finance Committee.

The Likud's negotiating team is considering taking the ILA - which UTJ is interested in heading - out of the Housing Ministry, with Shas' agreement, and giving it to a UTJ deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office.


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