Sharansky looks set to become JA head

Some US Jewish leaders oppose move, which comes as Jewish Agency set to pass reform plan.

bibi sharansky 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bibi sharansky 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The appointment of Natan Sharansky as chairman of the Jewish Agency seems to be solidifying ahead of the organization's assembly this week, where it will come up for a final vote. The developments follow weeks of political turmoil between the government and the agency over reforms that could torpedo the famed Soviet dissident's nomination. The nomination by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ran into opposition from some American funders and communal leaders who protested that it amounted to imposing a chairman on the agency at a time when the agency was set to vote on a major reform of its governance. The reform plan is expected to pass in the Jewish Agency Assembly at its meeting in Jerusalem on Tuesday, and will in effect weaken Israeli political control over the organization. Traditionally, the appointment of the Jewish Agency chairman has gone automatically to the prime minister's nominee for the position, but under the new system, the organization's internal leadership would have greater influence over the decision. "We've debated this reform for two-and-a-half years in a transparent process," said Jewish Agency Board of Governors chairman Richie Pearlstone, who is at the forefront of the opposition to Netanyahu's nomination. "I think the nominating committee [that will be created as a result of the reforms on Tuesday] is entitled to talk to Natan to understand his views," he told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. In a Thursday letter to the prime minister, Pearlstone called Sharansky "a candidate of outstanding stature" and said the agency's board "appreciate[s] your recommending a candidate of his renown." However, he stopped short of offering a compromise that would guarantee Sharansky's appointment. From the government's perspective, the reforms are being carried out without coordination with the Israeli political system. "The pursuit of governance [reform] has become a holy grail [for the Americans]," said a source close to the issue, "but in the meantime it's being passed with methods unbecoming of a process meant to bring more transparency." Even the opposition seems to concur on this point. According to a senior Kadima official, "it's not just the Likud that doesn't like the idea of splitting the Jewish Agency from Israeli politics. [Kadima leader] Tzipi [Livni] thinks it's a terrible idea, and we're disturbed at the fact that we've failed to notice this coming." The net result of the public feud over Sharansky has been to make people believe that the American branch of the Jewish Agency system, including the American federation umbrella UJC, is opposed to the Sharansky appointment itself. It is not, according to Washington federation head Dr. Misha Galperin. In fact, "the appointment of Natan Sharansky is what's most important here. Do we need reform in the agency? Absolutely. But not at the expense of [losing] Natan as chairman." Unlike with previous chairmen, for whom the appointment marked a dramatic increase in prestige, "with Sharansky it's the other way around," said Galperin. This view is widely shared, he added, by many donors and US Jewish leaders. "A lot of donors I've talked to who have been critics of the agency say this appointment is a wonderful thing. Sharansky could bring in people who are not involved in the agency," he said. Within the UJC itself, sentiment seems to favor Sharansky as well. "The feeling within UJC is that ultimately Sharansky will be the chairman. Almost everybody is more than happy with that," said an official of the umbrella body. "But the issue is that we want the governance [reform] to pass first." The new Leadership Nominating Committee that will elect the new chairman, according to the reform proposals, contains 10 positions - three to the UJC, two to communal fundraising umbrella Keren Hayesod and five to the World Zionist Organization. The reform proposal is expected to pass, according to insiders, meaning that Sharansky will need nine out of 10 votes on the committee to be chairman. The WZO and Keren Hayesod are believed to be strongly on his side, despite some reservations from Kadima delegates and the Reform and Conservative movements. Thus it is the American representation of the UJC that will likely make the final decision. The more people one asks, the more certain Sharansky's appointment appears.