A rabbi who supports the creation of a religious state in Israel has become the country's new education minister.
Yitzhak Levy, 50, succeeds Zevulun Hammer, who died of cancer last month. Mr Levy, who is closely linked with the messianic movement to build Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was elected to the post by the National Religious Party, which holds the education portfolio within Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government. Mr Levy was also elected head of the party.
He will take the reins of an education system in which nearly 70 per cent of Jewish schoolchildren define themselves as non-religious, and attend state secular schools. Another 20 per cent attend state religious schools, and 10 per cent independent ultra-orthodox institutions.
Zevulun Hammer increased Jewish studies and values in secular schools, but his moderate views, won him broad respect. Levy, transport minister until now, represents the most religiously extreme of three main factions within the NRP.
Observers expect the influence of rabbis on policy to increase now. Hours after his win, Levy said he planned to "unite the people around the principles of Zionism, Judaism, and democracy", and to consult widely. He would favour running the State of Israel along the lines of Jewish religious law "if there was a consensus" and argued that "the religious public has the greatest degree of caring one for another, whereas you secularists live in loneliness, within your own little four walls".
An NRP insider predicted that Levy would cultivate a moderate image until the next general election, in 2000. "That's unless the rabbis wade in beforehand, over something like the involvement of the Conservative or Reform (liberal religious movements) in schools," the source said. "Then Levy will have to decide between his right-wing faction, his rabbis, and the image he wants to convey."