Ignoring PM’s wishes, Jewish Agency committee nominates Herzog as chairman

In unprecedented move, commission disregards Netanyahu’s preference in its choice for leader; move seen as rebuke of government’s religious policies affecting Diaspora Jewry

Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) attends a discussion at the Knesset, May 8, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) attends a discussion at the Knesset, May 8, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

The Jewish Agency’s nominating committee said Thursday it would recommend opposition leader Isaac Herzog as the agency’s new leader, despite strong opposition from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had pressured committee members to consider Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz for the role.

“The Leadership Nominating Committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel will recommend on Sunday to the Jewish Agency Board of Governors the election of MK Isaac Herzog as the next Chairman of the Executive, for a term of 4 years,” the committee said in a statement. “MK Herzog will assume office no later than August 1, 2018.”

The board, composed of 120 members, is expected to accept the committee’s recommendations.

In ignoring the Israeli prime minister’s wishes in choosing its chairman, the Jewish Agency is taking an unprecedented step.

Sources in the agency told the Times of Israel the expected vote for Herzog could be understood as a reaction to government actions that have angered Diaspora Jewry, including Netanyahu’s reversal of a 2016 decision on pluralistic prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

Herzog said in a statement he planned to accept the position.

“In light of requests I have received from diaspora leaders, I have agreed to take upon myself the post of Jewish Agency chairman. These are times of significant challenges for the relations of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. I will assume the post starting August 1.”

On Wednesday Netanyahu sought to block Herzog’s nomination, despite nine of 10 committee members supporting the former leader of the Zionist Union party.

On Thursday, after the nomination was announced, Netanyahu canceled a meeting with Diaspora Jewish leaders and the heads of the Jewish Agency, scheduled for Monday.

When committee members met with Netanyahu to present him with their recommendation, the premier admonished them for failing to meet with Steinitz, his preferred candidate, and asked them to meet with the minister before making their final recommendation.

The committee met with Steinitz on Thursday, but shortly thereafter announced that it had chosen Herzog.

“Steinitz is not a contender anymore,” a source in the Jewish Agency told The Times of Israel.

Officials said Herzog gave the committee a very convincing presentation on his plans for the agency. Steinitz on the other hand did not even respond to the committee’s invitation to appear before it until the premier demanded the meeting on Wednesday.

Herzog is now the only name on the ballot going into Sunday’s meeting, though candidates can still be added before then.

Sharansky is to step down as head of the Jewish Agency next month, after nine years in the position.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz attends the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, October 29, 2017. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Flash90)

In addition to Herzog and Steinitz, candidates who have been floated as possible replacements for Sharansky include Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai; deputy diplomacy minister and former US ambassador Michael Oren; former UN ambassadors Dan Gillerman and Ron Prosor; Rivka Carmi, who is president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Ma’ale Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel.

In March, Netanayhu reportedly recommended Yohanna Arbib-Perugia, head of the Jerusalem Foundation and a member of the executive of the Jewish Agency, for the position. However, a day later Haaretz reported that Netanyahu withdrew the nomination after she apparently rejected the offer.

In 2016 the government suspended a decision to guarantee non-Orthodox Jews permanent access for pluralistic prayer at the wall, due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders.

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. However, the deal 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.

Sharansky has since warned the government of widespread anger over the Wall as well as over the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over conversions.

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