NEW YORK (JTA) — While publicly taking steps to eliminate the influence politicians wield at the Jewish Agency for Israel, the agency also cleared the way for a new chairman — the choice of Israel’s prime minister.
The agency has been caught in something of a political pickle in recent weeks after Benjamin Netanyahu publicly endorsed his political ally, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, to take the agency’s reins.
In years past that would have made Sharansky a shoo-in, and Netanyahu and his backers clearly expected the same thing this time, too.
But in recent months, agency officials jockeying to assert the right to choose their own professional leader have expressed public dismay that Netanyahu would impose a chairman of his choosing.
Meanwhile, backers of Netanyahu and Sharansky in the Israeli government threatened that if the agency resisted appointing Sharansky as chairman, it could lose millions of dollars in government funding. The agency, which receives $140 million to $180 million annually from the North American Jewish federation system, has an exclusive relationship with the Israeli government in some areas, such as immigrant absorption.
Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs and information, Yuli Edelstein, told the Jerusalem Post earlier this month that if the Jewish Agency does not accept Sharansky as chairman, the government could sever the special ties.
"If the Jewish Agency wants to become just another NGO, cutting its connections with the Israeli government, that’s their right," Edelstein said. "The immediate result will be to find more efficient partners to advance our programs and interests in the Diaspora."
The agency long has been a target of critics who say it is fraught with political horse-trading: Politicians hand out appointments on the basis of political allegiances, and the agency has developed a culture of cronyism as a result, according to critics.
Philanthropists over the years have cited such problems as reasons for ending their support of the agency, and the allegations have provided an impetus for recent reform efforts.
“There are things we can do to make it more readily apparent that this situation is not political, that things are being decided on a merit basis and that is a big part of the reforms that are being presented at the assembly,” said Steve Hoffman, an associate member of the agency’s board of governors and also president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.
The Jewish Agency’s delegates’ assembly and board of governors are meeting this week in Jerusalem.
“I believe the agency has radically transformed itself," Hoffman said recently, before the meetings in Israel. "It is much more effective, financially responsible and a less political organization than it has ever been. There are some more steps we have to take to make it more self-evident.”
For the past two years, agency leaders have been pushing to reform the organization through a series of sweeping changes aimed at erecting some barriers between the agency’s main governing body and the World Zionist Organization — a body in which Israeli politicians traditionally have wielded heavy influence and which also makes up half of the agency’s board of governors. The WZO has been a primary target of critics alleging cronyism.
Last November, the Jewish Agency drafted a new framework to try to de-politicize its most public post, that of chairman, which in years past essentially was an appointee of the prime minister.
The framework called for the agency to form similar nominating committees to select its executive board chairman and top lay position, the chairman of its board of governors. The prime minister would be consulted on the selection of the executive board chairman, but his approval would not be required for either post.
The delegates’ assembly overwhelmingly approved the reforms Tuesday in Jerusalem.
Sharansky was expected to be named chairman after a rushed nominating and approval process.
On Tuesday afternoon, the agency’s top lay leader, Richard Pearlstone, convened a nominating committee that was expected to meet Wednesday to discuss the Sharansky nomination. On Thursday, the final day of the meetings, Sharansky was expected to win approval by the board of governors, though agency officials would not comment publicly about the arrangement.
Several days ago, Pearlstone sent a letter to Netanyahu saying that Sharansky was a viable candidate and the resistance toward him was a reflection only of the agency’s campaign to govern itself, not any substantive objection toward Sharansky.
“This man earned the right to be the head of the Jewish Agency,” said one source close to the agency. “He is supposed to stand at the nexus of the Jewish world abroad and in Israel. And if anyone deserves to stand there it is Natan Sharansky because he struggled in the Diaspora as a Jew and reached great heights in the Israeli government as a minister.”