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Emerging coalition will back Elazar Stern as new Jewish Agency head, sources say

Yesh Atid MK will be supported as candidate by his party leader Lapid and PM-designate Bennett

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern speaks during a conference for Young Leadership programs, at the University of Haifa, on April 11, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern speaks during a conference for Young Leadership programs, at the University of Haifa, on April 11, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yesh Atid and Yamina have agreed to nominate Yesh Atid MK and former IDF general Elazar Stern as the next government’s candidate to replace Isaac Herzog as chairman of the Jewish Agency when the latter becomes president of Israel next month, The Times of Israel has learned.

According to political sources with direct knowledge of the coalition negotiations, the two parties have agreed to include a clause in the agreement between them stating that the candidate for head of the Jewish Agency will be agreed upon by both prime minister-designate, Yamina chair Naftali Bennett, and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid who is slated to become foreign minister in the emerging government.

While Stern will not be named in the coalition agreements, which must be released before the new government is sworn in, the two leaders have agreed to back his candidacy and lobby the Jewish Agency’s nominating body on his behalf, the sources said, adding that Stern had been contacted directly by Yamina and told that he would be chosen.

Both Yesh Atid and Yamina declined to comment on Stern’s candidacy, saying that they would not discuss the details of the coalition agreements which will be released in the coming days.

Contacted by The Times of Israel, Stern said he did not know what was in the coalition agreements but “understood” that he was “being talked about for the position.”

Yair Lapid (right) and new Yesh Atid recruit MK Elazar Stern at a press conference in Tel Aviv, on January 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Ben Kelmer/FLASH90)

By tradition, the prime minister suggests a candidate to head the quasi-governmental organization — the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit organization — and the candidate is approved by the agency’s nominating committee and then by its board of governors.

The nominating committee is led by World Zionist Organization chairman Yaakov Hagoel and includes four other members of the WZO, three representatives from the Jewish Federations of North America, including board of governors chairman Michael Siegal, and two representatives from Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal.

While the selection committee is not obligated to vote for the prime minister’s preferred candidate, it has only once rejected the Israeli premier’s pick — in 2018, when Netanyahu presented Likud minister Yuval Steinitz as a candidate at the last minute before a vote on Herzog, then the only person in the race.

In addition to Stern, candidates who have been floated as possible replacements for Herzog include Likud’s Steinitz, the current energy minister; Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich from the Blue and White party; Labor MK Gilad Kariv, the Knesset’s first Reform rabbi; former ambassadors to the United Nations Danny Danon and Ron Prosor; former New York consul-general Dani Dayan; and former MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh.

Herzog has served as chairman of the Jewish Agency since August 2018, succeeding Natan Sharansky, who had served as chairman since 2009. Herzog, the former head of the Zionist Union political party, was elected last week as Israel’s 11th president, a role he will take up on July 9.

Isaac Herzog raises a toast at the Knesset after he was elected by lawmakers as Israel’s 11th president, June 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Before 1948, the Jewish Agency was the central player in the establishment of the State of Israel, and in the early years of the state served a vital role in its development. Today it handles key aspects of immigration by Jews to Israel for the state, and serves as a prime beneficiary of Diaspora donations to the Jewish state.

The organization spends, together with various organizations that co-fund its programs, the largest of which is the Israeli government, over $362 million each year in Israel and around the Jewish world.

Stern, an Orthodox former IDF general, entered Knesset in 2013 with the Hatnua party, headed by Tzipi Livni. In the run-up to the 2015 election, he joined Yesh Atid, placing 12th on its slate; he just missed out on entering the Knesset when the party won 11 seats but became an MK in September that year when Shai Piron resigned his seat.

Stern would be a comfortable partner for the generally more progressive-leaning leaders of the American Jewish institutional world, including the liberal Jewish religious streams represented on the Jewish Agency’s board and nominating committee.

As a key voice for liberal Orthodoxy in the Knesset, Stern has been a fierce critic of the 2016 government decision to suspend a plan to guarantee non-Orthodox Jews permanent access for pluralistic prayer at the wall, due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders.

Jewish girls at the pluralistic prayer section at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, January 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As part of the January 2016 agreement, which the cabinet approved after four years of negotiations, the government committed to renovating the so-called Ezrat Yisrael prayer platform. But the deal had also included building a common entrance to the Western Wall for three prayer areas — the Orthodox men’s and women’s section and the “Ezrat Yisrael” plaza, where men and women can worship together — and for representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism to share in the joint oversight of the pluralistic prayer area.

In June of that year, after some ultra-Orthodox websites started to criticize the agreement, the cabinet voted to suspend it, backing away from what was perceived to be a degree of recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

The government’s freezing of the deal led to a bitter crisis in Israel-Diaspora ties, with many representatives of world Jewry saying they felt “betrayed” by the Jewish state. With the Jewish Agency voicing unprecedented criticism of the government over the issue, it fueled the organization’s decision to reject Netanyahu’s pick for chairman.

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