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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
American funders' opposition to Natan Sharansky's candidacy for chairman of the Jewish Agency will likely not torpedo his appointment, Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office confirmed last month that Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik, minister and current head of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at Jerusalem's Shalem Center, was the government's preferred candidate for Jewish Agency chairman. The position recently became open when Bielski left the agency for the Kadima Knesset list.
Because of a complicated political election mechanism in the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency's chairman has traditionally come down to the prime minister's preference.
But Sharansky's candidacy comes at a time when the heads of the agency's primary funding organization, the US-based United Jewish Communities (UJC), are seeking to push through dramatic reforms to the agency's governance structure, which they say is politicized and wasteful.
Thus, UJC chairman Joe Kanfer was quoted by JTA as saying shortly after Sharansky's candidacy was announced that "We have been working for quite a while on new governance processes that will strengthen the Jewish Agency, and feel that any position should be filled according to those governance processes.
"Sharansky should be given thoughtful consideration by the nominating committee. We believe this is important work and that [the Jewish Agency] needs to follow procedures."
Sharansky has refused to confirm his candidacy despite repeated requests from the Post and other media to do so, leading to speculation that he faced pressure to turn down the job.
While such pressure is reportedly coming from the founder of the institute Sharansky heads, American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Sharansky is said to be more concerned with the possibility of resistance from the agency's partner and major funder, the UJC.
The agency is seen by many to be at a crossroads. Its funding has shrunk dramatically in recent years as aliya has dried up and the agency has struggled to remain a primary conduit for charity funds from the Diaspora to Israel.
Agency officials believe Sharansky's reputation could generate a spike in fundraising, while would-be reformers complain that Sharansky's stature will only delay reforms that are crucial to the agency's survival and continued relevance by keeping it in the hands of Israeli politicians for another four-year term.
But the Israeli government also has an interest in the organization, which was the country's pre-state government and serves as a semi-official arm of the government in places around the world where official representatives cannot go.
According to Edelstein, who is responsible for the government's relations with Jewish organizations such as the UJC and the agency, the UJC heads "are making a serious mistake in failing to consider that the government of Israel should be part of the reform process."
Reforms seeking to weaken the deep ties between Israel's political leadership and the agency's governance would "turn it into just another NGO with no special connection to the State of Israel. They'd be a respectable charity, but no more than the JDC, Nefesh B'Nefesh or the IFCJ," Edelstein said.
"Emotionally, I can understand where they're coming from in not wanting to deal with the representatives of different political parties in Israel, and not necessarily leading representatives, but a total divorce that is implemented without considering its results could be a crushing blow to the Jewish Agency," Edelstein added.
On Thursday, UJC leaders Steve Hoffman, head of the Cleveland Jewish federation, and Kanfer said in a statement that they were not personally opposed to Sharansky's candidacy.
"Natan Sharansky is a true hero of the Jewish people, and a personal hero of ours," they said, adding that they welcomed his Netanyahu's recommendation.
"However, we have been engaging with our partners in the Jewish Agency, who have been working with us to improve the governance process. It's our understanding that the new process for selecting a chairman of the Jewish Agency executive was to be followed in order to fill the current vacancy. We believe this important recommendation by the prime minister needs to be considered in this process."
But a Jewish Agency insider expressed the thoughts of many officials in hoping the reformers don't torpedo the nomination.
"In the current financial situation of world Jewry in general and the Jewish Agency in particular, you don't look a gift horse in the mouth," the insider said. "Would it be such a tragedy if the new governance procedures are postponed four years? You don't get a candidate of Sharansky's stature every day."