'Israel ready to detach itself from JA'

Edelstein: Row over chairman appointment may end agency's "special relationship" with the Jewish state.

Yuli Edelstein 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
Yuli Edelstein 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
The escalating political feud between the Israeli government and American donors over the leadership of the Jewish Agency has grown so acrimonious it may threaten the agency's very existence, The Jerusalem Post has learned. "If the Jewish Agency wants to become just another NGO, cutting its connections with the Israeli government, that's their right. The immediate result will be to find more efficient partners to advance our programs and interests in the Diaspora," Minister for Diaspora Affairs and Information Yuli Edelstein told the Post on Tuesday. Edelstein was reacting to plans by the UJC, the umbrella American federation body which provides the majority of the JA's funding, to free the agency's top spots from Israeli political control by disconnecting it from the World Zionist Organization. That reform plan would harm the chances of Edelstein's mentor and fellow anti-Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky becoming the agency's next chairman. Sharansky is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's choice for the next chairman, but donor organization leaders feel that Israeli political control over the agency's top leadership - including the de facto appointments of chairmen by Israeli prime ministers - is harmful to the agency's well-being. For Edelstein, the reforms are not the problem. Rather, he is angry that they are being instituted at the expense of the chairmanship of Sharansky. "We can agree to these reforms, even though we were never consulted [about them]," he told the Post. But the reforms "have to be phased in over three years," he added, during which Sharansky would serve as joint chairman of the Jewish Agency and WZO (as the current system demands), and would then resign from one of the position in keeping with the American-led reforms. The alternative was dire, he warned. Israeli political control, whatever its drawbacks, was the reason the agency had a special standing in Israel; it is considered on par with a cabinet post, and is treated as a national institution, though it is not an official organ of the state. "If some operators in the fundraising bodies [such as the UJC] and the Jewish Agency want a divorce from the Israeli government, that's hardly a difficult proposition," Edelstein said. Government officials were already examining what it would take to cut some $130 million in Israeli government spending on joint government-agency programs and give it to "other, more efficient partners," he added. The argument between the Americans funders and the Israeli politicians is only one front in the battle for the agency's future, however. Sharansky's chairmanship is caught in a Kadima-Likud political spat that may seriously damage his chances to lead the organization. The last chairman, current MK Ze'ev Bielski, was a Kadima candidate who won election in the WZO according to a coalition agreement in that political body. According to that agreement, Kadima still controls the chairmanship of the Jewish Agency until the next Zionist Congress convenes in the summer of 2010. "To give up this position to the Likud, which is what Bibi [Netanyahu] is asking for, we would have to negotiate about other positions," a Kadima spokesman noted bluntly. Sources in the party informed the Post that Kadima was seeking to trade the chairmanship of the agency for the right to appoint the next Jewish National Fund chairmanship. The JNF's leadership is also drawn from the WZO. The confusing horse-trading of the top roles in the major Zionist agencies boiled down to inter-party competition, Israeli sources said. "It's not an accepted practice to run a candidate against that of the prime minister," acknowledged MK Eli Aflalo, head of World Kadima and the party's representative to the Jewish Agency leadership and other Zionist institutions. "But it was the Likud that started this practice by running Sharansky the first time" - in 2005 against Bielski. Aflalo warned the Likud "against threatening the Americans, who are our partners in all these processes. We must reach agreements with each other, not threaten." The vote for Sharansky's chairmanship will come up in the Jewish Agency Board of Governors meeting on the morning of June 23. Sharansky's chances are difficult to determine, even 11 days ahead of the meeting. Kadima's WZO allies include the representatives of the Conservative religious stream, which together with the Reform Movement is wary of Sharansky's past support for the religious status quo in Israel. "We have felt bitter disappointment on the positions he has taken [while a minister in previous Likud governments] on religious pluralism and legitimizing non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel," said one Conservative Movement representative. The Conservative delegation would likely change its mind only if it received guarantees that Sharansky would advocate for religious pluralism in Israel if he became chairman. The Reform movement, however, is said to be "vehemently" opposed to Sharansky's candidacy and is preparing to be absent from the board meeting. "Some of this is posturing and bargaining," said a senior agency official who asked not to be named. "People are desperately working toward a resolution of this by next week, but it's probably going to be right down to the wire." The UJC did not respond to queries by press time, but a senior American Jewish official intimately familiar with the situation noted that the political battle surrounding Sharansky's appointment was precisely why the new reforms were desperately needed. "This whole thing is ridiculous. This is the worst example of Israeli politics interfering with our business," said the senior official. "Kadima is trying to screw Bibi and no one gives a s*** about the Jewish Agency. If they cared, they'd want us to do what's best and work with us," he added. "Right now, governance is the most important issue for the Jewish Agency. According to the governance [proposals] the prime minister will still be involved in the nominating process, but we all want a transparent organization" not subject to the vicissitudes of Israeli politics, he insisted. "The Israeli government has to decide if politics are more important than the partnership with global Jewry that the Jewish Agency represents," he said.•