Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is expected to choose the next head of Nativ in the coming weeks, a decision observers say is rife with political considerations.
A committee is set to pass a list of five candidates for the post to Sharon by the end of the month. Among the leading contenders are Eli Tessman, who has held several positions in Nativ and has a strong intelligence background, his long-serving Lishkat Hakesher colleague Mala Tavori, Israel's current ambassador to Russia Arkady Milman, and former ambassador to the Ukraine Anna Azari, who now run the Foreign Ministry's Eastern Europe and CIS department.
The name Alik Ron, the former Northern Region police chief severely criticized for his handling of the October 2000 riots by the Or commission, has also been floated, and the Russian press has been profiling Sonia Michaeli, the chief scientist for the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the only contender who was available for interview for this article.
Nativ, or Lishkat Hakesher, was established as a clandestine agency for contact with Soviet Jewry. But then the Iron Curtain fell and Jews flowed freely from the Soviet Union to Israel - and the secret organization came out of the closet. Many have questioned the need for the organization, which now processes visas for FSU immigrants, especially with a host of other bodies - the Jewish Agency, the Foreign Ministry, even the Mossad - doing similar work elsewhere.
Calls over the past decade for Nativ to be disbanded have always been met with enough political resistance that they have been abandoned, but the bureau's budget has been whittled down to less than NIS 60 million for 2006.
Now, many insiders say Sharon has too much to gain from handing out the top job to give up the opportunity.
"Nothing will happen between now and the elections that isn't political. You saw that clearly in the race for the Jewish Agency head, in how clearly over-involved the Prime Minister's Office was in that," said one source close to the PMO, referring to Sharon's involvement in the choice of Zeev Bielski to succeed Sallai Meridor as JA chairman this summer. "The same thing's happening with Lishkat Hakesher.
"The next prime minister might very well find himself elected by the Russian immigrant community in the State of Israel," he said, particularly with a key block of Russian votes sitting in the Likud Central Committee. "There's an unbelievable connection between the oligarchs in Russia and the Israeli political community, and there may be a dramatic effect on also on the financing of the election."
He also pointed to Lishkat Hakesher as a way to maintain a direct line to Russia without the need for the Foreign Ministry, or Foreign Minister.
"Sharon wants the Russians to know that he cares about them. If Lishkat Hakesher is shut down, it's another slap in the face to the Russian constituency," said another official who works with Diaspora Jewry. "In order to strengthen his hold on the Russian community, he wants to strengthen his hold on Lishkat Hakesher... because of the increasing importance of the Russians in Israeli society - both olim and oligarchs."
"Do you hear me laughing?" That's Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon's response to the ruminations. Maimon has been tasked with heading a selection committee for the job currently headed by Zvi Magen, who is stepping down after more than seven years at the helm.
Maimon said the committee should be interviewing the seven-eight serious candidates next week and making a recommendation of five or so finalists for the PM to chose from by the end of the month.
A committee has never before weighed in on the selection of Nativ's head, according to Maimon. He said the panel was appointed this time to guarantee "transparency" and a wide selection of candidates.
Despite reports that knowledge of Russian and a security background are two requirements for the job, Maimon said the former is far from essential and that the latter is "important" but no more.
Instead, he pointed to management experience. "The first condition is that they have management skills and that they have been involved in the area of what Nativ is doing."
Maimon defended Nativ's past and future importance.
"Nativ has a very important role regarding its activities in the Diaspora, and in Russia they still have an impact. Now things look calm in Russia, but you don't know what can happen in two years, in three years, and it's important that you have such a body that already has acted over the years," he said.
And indeed, FSU-born MKs Marina Solodkin and Yuri Shtern both defended the institution. "I see this as still most the important position to continue aliya in the FSU," said Solodkin of the Likud.
"There is a very serious need for this kind of institution that is within the government and is exclusively devoted to the issues of these Jews and their relationship with Israel," said the National Union's Stern. "This is a strategic [institution] for Israel, and this a very big and important population."
But another Russian politico, retired from party politics for the moment, felt Nativ was now so irrelevant that he agreed with Maimon when he said the selection isn't political.
"It's lost its days of glory on all fronts," he said, questioning its continued existence and adding, "I don't think it's important for Sharon politically, for him to keep the Russian vote on his side.
The agency "doesn't have political value on the Russian street," he said. "It's just a nice job to give to somebody."
According to a source at the Jewish Agency - long ago hostile to an organization seen as either a competitor or a redundancy - the post was initially seen as a shoo-in for Tessman. But opposition from Magen and an appreciation of the political dimension of the choice encouraged different consideration, although Tessman is still rumored to be a prominent candidate.
Immigrant Absorption Ministry Director-General Mirla Gal, a member of Maimon's committee, wouldn't name names, but did acknowledge the selection process has gone on far longer than originally anticipated. Representatives from the Jewish Agency, the Foreign Ministry and the security services are also still on the panel.
The Foreign Ministry refused to allow interviews with Milman and Azari on their candidacy for the "secret" agency, and the Prime Minister's Office likewise turned down interview requests with Tassman and Tavori. Ron could not be reached for comment.
Michaeli, however, agreed to talk to The Jerusalem Post about her candidacy.
Michaeli immigrated from the Ukraine in 1990 and earned a degree in psychology from the Hebrew University before working for the Jewish Agency's Na'aleh program for young Russian immigrants, the Education Ministry's division for immigrant students, and ultimately the absorption ministry.
"Lishkat Hakesher closes the circle," she said.
She said choosing a woman, particularly an academic, would be a "historic" first, and bring some new perspectives to the office.
She noted that she would need some time in the position to study the current situation before being able to offer solutions to such problems as increasing FSU aliya, which has plummeted in recent years. She did stress that doing the job well means coordinating between difference offices and suiting the bureau to the current reality.
The key, she said, is encouraging aliya and making sure that those who come here stay. "It's very important to me to do my utmost so that my grandchildren will have grandchildren here. For this reason, I came here," said the 47-year-old mother of two and grandmother of one.
Several observers described Michaeli as a "political" candidate, and added that the name-dropping of candidates for the head of Nativ has been used as a favor to earn the individuals political points.
In the opinion of the Jewish Agency source, "This whole competition has made the stakes much higher. They've made the Lishkat Hakesher much more important than it actually is - or was."