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Surprise Resignation of Jafi Head Sparks Speculation on Meridor Future

The resignation of one of the most powerful professionals in Jewish life came as a surprise to many of those closest to him — and sparked rumors throughout the Jewish world about Sallai Meridor’s future plans. In a letter Tuesday, Meridor, chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, informed his staff and volunteer leadership that he would step down early.

After six years as head of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, Meridor said he would leave after the Jewish Agency’s board of governors’ meeting in June, a year before his term ends.

Names mooted as possible successors include Natan Sharansky, who resigned last week as Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs; Shai Hermesh, the agency’s treasurer and its second ranking professional; and Ze’ev Bielski, mayor of Ra’anana and a member of the agency’s board of governors.

“I believe that the best interest of public organizations require change, and that as a norm public servants should not stay in their chairs forever. Accordingly, the question before me for the past few months has been when to make the change — now or a year from now,” Meridor wrote.

“Passing the torch to my successor at the upcoming assembly, which will take place at the end of June, will prevent the downside of a lengthy interim period,” he wrote.

It also will allow his successor to “vigorously commence the implementation of the strategic plan,” a new action plan the group is putting into place that will focus on building Jewish and Zionist identity worldwide, with particular emphasis on youth.

Many of those closest to Meridor take him at his word.

“I can’t emphasize it enough: There’s no hidden agenda here,” said Carole Solomon of New York, chair of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors.

“I believe he felt that given the intensity of the job and the enormity of the responsibility, that after two full terms it would be time for someone else with renewed energy to come in,” she said.

“He told me that he was not interested in being a lame duck,” said Jay Sarver of St. Louis, the agency’s budget and finance chairman.

Others speculate that something else is afoot.

Meridor’s resignation comes one week after Sharansky resigned because of his objection to the government’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Some Jewish communal officials wonder if a job swap between the two men is in the works. Others say Sharansky’s anti-disengagement stance would make him an unlikely candidate to represent Israel and world Jewry through the Jewish Agency, which facilitates immigration to Israel and runs Zionist education programs worldwide.

Sharansky adviser Aryeh Green told JTA that Sharansky “is not pursuing and never has pursued any position at the Jewish Agency.”

“The idea that this was some sort of a deal worked out, that Sharansky resigns and then Meridor resigns, is way out of left field,” he said.

Rumors abound that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may offer Meridor the post of ambassador to Britain or the United States.

Others suggest that Meridor, who supports the Gaza withdrawal, could be appointed as Sharon’s special ambassador on that issue.

“Sharon needs an ambassador who supports disengagement and who is not a civil servant but a person of stature, a politician,” one source said.

Others suggest that the controversial removal of Mike Rosenberg, JAFI’s director general of immigration and absorption, may have been a way to provide a top-level opening for a future leader of the agency to fill.

Rosenberg, who was told his contract would not be renewed after several years of service, will stay in his position through next year.

JTA has been unable to confirm any of the speculation.

While it’s conceivable that Meridor could be making himself available for a political opportunity, sources say he hasn’t been offered anything.

“I spoke to him today and asked what he’ll do and he said it wasn’t yet known,” said Avi Pazner, chairman of Keren Hayesod, which raises funds for the Jewish Agency from Jewish communities outside North America.

Those close to Meridor describe him as a man of integrity who says what he means.

Political maneuvering seems out of Meridor’s character, said Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

“I take him at his word,” said Nasatir, who is close to Meridor and whose federation heavily supports the Jewish Agency.

“We will be seeing Sallai somewhere else,” Nasatir said, though he added, “I have no sense of where that is or what that might be.”

Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and immediate past president of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella body for North American Jewish federations, also doesn’t think Meridor has secret plans.

“I don’t believe there’s any back deal,” Hoffman said. “If the prime minister wanted to call him to service, he could call him to service from the chair of the Jewish Agency.”

Jewish organizational officials were stunned by the announcement, which comes as efforts are being made to restore order to the agency, which boasts a $350 million annual budget and has emissaries around the world.

Meridor has pushed for reforms to streamline the Jewish Agency, which some have criticized as a bloated bureaucracy. During his tenure, the agency created a strategic plan to nurture the Zionist identity of Diaspora Jews, and launched MASA, a partnership with the Israeli government to subsidize Diaspora youth on short- and long-term programs in Israel.

Meridor also has pushed for aliyah from North America and helped create the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an Israeli think tank.

“Sallai provided exemplary leadership for the agency,” said John Ruskay, executive vice president of the UJA-Federation of New York. “By his smarts and his impeccable integrity, he was able to re-engage and reinspire people to the work of the agency.”

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