US reformers back Natan Sharansky

WZO and Keren Hayesod apparently plan to vote for his appointment as head of Jewish Agency.

sharansky 248 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
sharansky 248 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Two of the major backers of the Jewish Agency's governance reform, which has been the subject of a row between the agency and the Israeli government, have taken a step toward assuring the government that its chief demand - the appointment of Natan Sharansky as agency chairman - is likely to pass.
"The prime minister has put forward an outstanding candidate who brings status and stature to the Jewish Agency," Joe Kanfer, chairman of the board of trustees of the UJC, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday in an interview. "In recent conversations with us, Sharansky has displayed real understanding of the drama of connecting Diaspora Jewry and Israel."
According to Steve Hoffman, head of the Cleveland Jewish federation, "our leadership believes everything Joe [Kanfer] said about Sharansky, and I think that's shared by [the remaining groups who will vote on the appointment on Tuesday,] the World Zionist Organization and Keren Hayesod."
Both refused to say outright that Sharansky would be appointed, believing the governance reform must pass before any nominee was formally considered, but they seemed to go out of their way to make assurances that Sharansky was the favored candidate. At one point, Kanfer even called the interview process of the nominating committee "pro forma."
Two years in the making, the governance reform is likely to pass in the Tuesday gathering of the Jewish Agency Assembly, though it is opposed by Israeli political leaders.
If it passes, the new chairman of the agency will be chosen by a special Leadership Nominating Committee in the agency, rather than by the WZO. In effect, this change would mean the end of the Israeli governmental monopoly over the appointment of a chairman. It would establish a new process by which a compromise candidate would be chosen by both American and international funders of the UJC and Keren Hayesod, and the Israeli political parties and worldwide Zionist organizations represented in the WZO.
The reform is necessary, said Kanfer, "because it makes for a more effective organization and because our donors and organizations expect the organization to which they contribute to be effective and nonpartisan."
"We've been working on governance reform for almost two years now," said Hoffman. "The expectation has been built up that we'll move it forward. Now it will be possible to have Sharansky [as chairman] under the best possible conditions."
Hoffman rejected accusations by Israeli political leaders that the governance process had been done without consultation.
"There were 60 interviews of board members, staff and associate members across all the constituencies - UJC, WZO [which includes Israeli political parties] and Keren Hayesod," he said.
Israeli representatives such as former chairman Ze'ev Bielski and Treasurer Hagai Merom were also on the committee, he noted.
Israeli political sources responded to the overtures by noting there were still significant issues that placed Sharansky's candidacy - the condition without which the Israeli government has said it would refuse to work with the agency - at risk.
First, the new Leadership Nominating Committee may end up being more politicized than the previous arrangement. To select a chairman, nine of the committee's 10 members must agree. Any coalition grumblings in the WZO - which holds five seats - could thus jeopardize a candidate's chances.
Second, the committee might demand that in order to win the nomination, Sharansky must agree to surrender day-to-day operations of the agency and control over employees to the director-general. The political sources noted that the current director-general, Moshe Vigdor, was highly regarded by the reform advocates.
Sharansky is unlikely to agree to this condition, which in effect would transform the position into that of an American-style fundraising lay leader.
"It is inconceivable that someone would recommend that the elected chairman be used as a tool for fundraising without the ability to oversee how the money is spent," said Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein.
Finally, the committee members will likely demand that Sharansky refuse to serve as chairman of both the WZO and the Jewish Agency; the reform calls for the separation, but does not demand it.
Sharansky is also unlikely to agree to this demand, as is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
"The prime minister has already said more than once that Sharansky will be appointed to chair of WZO and JAFI for a period that will be agreed upon by both organizations," said Edelstein.
In a compromise suggested by Edelstein in the past, the separation of the chairmanships would take place over three years.