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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Prime Minister's Office on Saturday night announced that former minister and Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky will be Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's candidate for chairmanship of the Jewish Agency.
The prime minister's choice is traditionally the shoo-in for the position.
Sharansky, who currently heads the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center, would not speak about the announcement Saturday night. An assistant to Sharansky confirmed that the prime minister has offered him the job.
"There was a conversation. The prime minister made the offer and Natan expressed interest," she said, but added that the offer was "being examined."
According to sources familiar with the discussion, Netanyahu told Sharansky the position would be a springboard to the presidency, but Sharansky is facing pressure from Adelson Institute contributor Sheldon Adelson to remain at his current post.
In the Jewish Agency, officials are welcoming the prime minister's decision.
"The Jewish Agency needs a chairman who has international stature, something it hasn't had since Ben-Gurion was chairman before the state was founded," said an agency official.
"Sharansky himself is a brand, and that's important for fundraising," the official added.
As income from the major communal organizations abroad declines in a bad recession, "donors will feel that an agency headed by Sharansky is worth giving to directly."
The agency also faces many political opponents, who view it as a bloated, anachronistic organization that has lost its function in the Jewish world. Some of the most vociferous of the organization's Israeli critics, such as new Diaspora and Information Minister Yuli Edelstein and new coalition chairman MK Ze'ev Elkin, are considered close to Sharansky. His chairmanship would "neutralize their criticism," according to the official.
Sharansky's appointment was also welcomed by the last chairman, Kadima MK Ze'ev Bielski.
"I think he's a worthy person who is well-known to the Jewish communities," Bielski told The Jerusalem Post. "I hope his candidacy is approved," he told the Post. "There hasn't been a chairman for a long while" - since Bielski's departure from day-to-day management in November so he could run in the elections - "and that's not good for the agency."
Bielski said he believed Sharansky could get to work quickly at the reins of the agency, "which has a very good administrative skeleton."
If he accepts Netanyahu's endorsement and runs for the position, Sharansky would be elected to the position in mid-June. He would first be elected chairman of the World Zionist Organization at the organization's General Council meeting in Jerusalem June 16-18, and then be elected chairman of the Jewish Agency by the agency's Assembly, which will meet June 21-23.