After days of hearted debate and confusion, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has chosen Neal Sher to be its new executive director.
The powerful pro-Israel lobby’s officers selected Sher, currently director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, on Thursday, after their earlier recommendation that he share the post with current Acting Executive Director Howard Kohr fell through.
The appointment requires ratification by APIAC’s executive committee and will probably take effect at the beginning of March.
“I am very excited, very enthusiastic and very honored that the faith and trust had been placed in me by the officers of AIPAC,” Sher said in a telephone interview with members of the Jewish news media.
He said the transition from hunting Nazis to lobbying for Israel is “very natural.”
“At OSI, I am dealing with the past. At AIPAC, I am dealing with the present and the future. It is a transition, and the circle sort of closes,” said Sher.
Kohr plans to remain at AIPAC, returning to his position as managing director. According to a spokesperson, he looks forward to working with Sher for a smooth transition.
Such a transition would cap a particularly rocky search process, which began with the resignation last June of Tom Dine after the publication of remarks he had made denigrating fervently Orthodox Jews.
According to a version of events described by former employees of the lobby, the remarks were in fact a pretense by AIPAC officers who sought to remove Dine for other reasons.
Those officers, according to a member of the search committee, were strong advocates of Kohr throughout the search process.
By contrast, AIPAC President Steven Grossman, according to sources, had been a supporter of Sher during at least the latter stages of the selection process, during what emerged as a conflict between an “old-guard” of former AIPAC presidents, who favored Kohr, and Grossman and others, who thought change was needed.
According to Douglas Bloomfield, a Washington analyst who formerly worked for AIPAC and still follows events there closely, key leaders of the old guard had threatened to leave the organization if Kohr was not selected.
These threats, according to Bloomfield and sources familiar with the situation, led to the compromise idea of a joint directorship. That compromise was then rejected by Kohr on Tuesday morning, shortly before the executive committee was expected to approve it. By this light, the selection of Sher represents a victory by Grossman, who unlike the former presidents is a Democrat, at the expense of the “old guard.”
Grossman himself denies that version, saying the reported threats of some officers to walk away from the organization were “simply not true.”
“Every one of the past president was on the call today” that selected Sher unanimously, Grossman said Thursday.
According to a source on the search committee, however, the first vote taken by the officers Thursday strongly favored Sher, but was not unanimous.
Grossman said all the officers “expressed strong support for the decision, and expressed unwavering support for the cause and organization. They look forward to working with Neal, to introducing Neal to people on both sides of the aisle and within the administration,” said Grossman.
One mark against Kohr in some quarters is his partisan identity as a Republican who formerly headed the National Jewish Coalition, Republican group. Sher said he is non-partisan, having served under two Democratic and two Republican administrations.
“As a federal official for about 15 years, I cannot participate in partisan politics. I am not a Democrat or a Republican. I am neither Labor nor Likud,” he said.
“At my work in OSI, I have been issue-oriented,” he added. “I have worked very hard at developing a strong bipartisan support for this office, and it has been very successful and a major reason the office has been around as long as it has.”
On Capitol Hill in Washington, there were some words of praise Thursday, both for Sher himself and for AIPAC’s selection of the Justice Department official.
“I know Neal well, having worked closely with him while he headed up the Office of Special Investigations,” Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
“Neal is smart, savvy and sophisticated. AIPAC has been an effective fighter for Israel. I have no doubt that will continue under Neal’s leadership,” Schumer added.
“I think that it was a good choice,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said in an interview. “He is certainly an experienced person with regard to Washington, Israel and issues of concern to the Jewish community. He did a very effective job with his OSI office.”
“It’s a wonderful thing for the organization,” said one Capitol Hill staffer familiar with AIPAC.
AIPAC needed to select someone with charisma who could get the group’s “agenda through to a larger community,” the staffer said.
“Sher is a proven, national figure, and Howard Kohr is not,” the staffer said.
In addition, the staffer said that the selection of Kohr would have been a move made for political reasons, and “AIPAC should not be partisan.”